Published Saturday Magazine,Nation newspaper 5 August 2017
“This part of town was called Utukuni,” states Hadija Ernst of Save Lamu, a coalition of 36 local NGOs to promote Lamu’s sustainable development, while protecting its culture, history and natural resources.
Utukuni in Kiswahili means market. “It was a market street where the merchants had their warehouses.”
It’s night. We’re lounging atop the rooftop at Nyota House – star in Kiswahili – overlooking Lamu Channel and rooftops of neighbouring Swahili houses, with children playing in the narrow alleys while women in traditional black buibuis hurry home.
It’s a beautiful home re-built by British architect John Church from the ruins of a Swahili home– unusual – stretching vertical four-stories high around a central plunge pool that reflects the stars at night and hence its name– Nyota.
Hadija is describing Lamu Stone Town from 17th century onwards. It was Lamu’s golden era, the epi-centre of trade, commerce, culture and the arts with women like Mwana Kupona the famous 19th century poetess of Lamu writing her epic poem Utendi wa Mwana Kupona (The Book of Mwana Kupona).
The wealthy Swahili merchants lived in another part of town, separating their home lives from business.
Lamu was the strongest port on the east African shores, coveted by all. The Easterners in their dhows sailed in with the monsoon winds and by early 16th century, the Portuguese had taken control forcing Lamu traders to pay tax. The Turks came in and the Lamu people rebelled against the Portuguese with the Omani Arabs stepping in to help. In mid-19 century, Sultan Seyyid Said helped the Lamu citizens get rid of the Portuguese and sent a governor to take command.
“There were ships sailing in from different parts of the world like the merchants of Venice,” continues Hadija.
The wealthy merchants of Lamu traded in slaves, ivory, rhino horn, mangrove poles, and turtle shells with the Middle East and India. In return, they sought silk, gold and spices. With the wealth came the fine stone houses and the exquisite Swahili architecture that is the hallmark of Lamu Stone Town which has it on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Walking down the house, no one outside walking past the door would imagine the plunge pool that the doors open to. White-washed spacious rooms on each floor look at it. A library to work in. Wooden shutter windows perform a dual function – when closed they screen everything but allow for air to circulate like in a termites’ mound keeping the rooms cool and the air circulating up through the central funnel.
In the night air, we walk to the seafront to enjoy the sea-breeze and the street food – kebabs, moushkaki and egg-chapattis – while a dhow is being loaded with everything from soap to sugar to sail to the other isles of the archipelago.
At Lamu Fort, there’s a Swahili wedding and we’re invited in for the women’s night of celebrations.
Lamu’s decline came with the end of the slave trade in 1907 and the port being shifted to Mombasa with the Uganda Railway in 1901.
At the time, the Fort was by the waterfront. Today the sea has receded more than 200 feet and in its place, is the town square where events like the Lamu Cultural Festival are held.
Walking back, a cat in the alley stretches and eyes us. Lamu’s cats are also a piece of history – look-alikes from the pharaohs tombs from 4,000 years back – pointed ears, small head, long neck, slim and long-legged – and now only found in Lamu.
In Lamu Stone Town
Nyota House is ideal for a family or a group of friends to share.
Did you know?
The town was first mentioned in the writings of an Arab traveller Abu-al-Mahasini, who met a judge from Lamu visiting Mecca in 1441.
Visit: The German Post Office Museum. The post office operated from 22 November 1888 to 3 March 1891, Fish art gallery.
Swahili House Museum next to Nyota House.
Lamu Museum that boasts the original pair of the musical horn, the Siwa from Pate.
Take a boat to Shela beach and the dunes or to Manda island to swim, see the turtle nests and historical ruins.
Lamu is again in a flux of change. The Lamu Port – a mega project being built and already a veritable industrial area on what was a rich mangrove creek.