It’s raining in Lamu Stone Town that has continuously been lived in for seven centuries and hence boasts of being the oldest urban town in East Africa. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, Lamu Stone Town is imbued with a richness of it past.
The rain has made it impossible to go island hopping in a dhow and so stuck in town, it’s the perfect time to stroll through the main shopping street down the alley where we’re staying – a 16th century Swahili house named after Lamu’s old name, Amu. A group of tourists wander in with the guide who gives the architectural spiel of the old coral and limestone house that is built around a courtyard – typical of the time – and sectioned into galleries for the family and guests. The carved notches, the enormous nyota (star) and casa (turtle) are intact on the walls despite the centuries past. As the family grew, extra stories were added to the house.
Outside, the grand wooden carved doors of Lamu that are history in themselves with academics studying them, add a lustre to the islands. l can just imagine someone like Mwana Kupona, the famous Lamu poetess of the 19th century, whose poem Utendi wa Mwana Kupona (The Book of Mwana Kupona), entering the door, visiting a friend. Her work is one of the most well-known works of early Swahili literature.
We have to stop to let a donkey laden with sand in its panniers to walk past us. And then we’re in town, on the street that’s the shopping paradise of Lamu. It’s Harambee Street.
Our first stop is at Isaiah Chepyator’s Old Town Art and Recycled Art gallery housed in a centuries-old building. We first met in 2013 in Koroto in the Tugen Hills near Lake Baringo and have since become good friends. The watchman-turned-artist sponsored the inaugural Koroto cultural festival in 2014.
His work is exported worldwide, his speciality carving from recycled wooden dhows, driftwood and broken boats into fish, frames and everything else.
My eye catches something else on the wall that looks insignificant but turns out to be the rostrum of a sawfish once so common in the Lamu waters – but haven’t been seen for years. “An old Bajuni man came to the gallery and l just had to buy it,” tells Chepyator.
Chepyator and l take the morning to wander down-town. Opposite his studio is another generations-old woodcarvers’ factory – Amani Handicraft, specializing in hand-carved Lamu wooden doors and furniture. Ahmed Queresh shows his tools while carving a door frame with Ingia kwa salama na amani (Enter in peace) chiselled in Arabic among the intricate patterns. He’s a master craftsman having learned much of his trade from famous carvers of a past generation. Chepyator then leads me to the recently renovated 700-year old Rawdha mosque where the huge wooden carved door was carefully cleaned by Queresh and to protect it from direct sunlight, has a canapé fitted above it.
Next stop is at one of Lamu’s famed silversmith – Slim – after the owner Mbarak O. Slim. He brings out a collection of silver rings set with shards of porcelain from old broken plates when traders from the east sailed in with the monsoon winds trading porcelain and silks for slaves, spices, mangrove poles, ivory and rhino horn. He shows off his visitor’s book with Hollywood actors dropping in.
Past the 19th century Lamu Fort we are at Abubaker Mamen’s shop (near the German post office) for the ubiquitous Kanga. The tall man regally dressed in a spotless white kanzu has just come from the mosque. Originally from Pate Island, his father settled in Lamu in search of better prospects. Mamen trades in pure cotton kangas collected from the island women. “When the cotton mills were working we made our own kangas – and they were pure cotton like these. Now all we get is imported stuff mixed with polyester and they just do not have the same feel or texture.”
It’s turning late afternoon and we drop in at Whispers the coffee shop and adjoining gallery called Gallery Baraka where the owner Kate Baraka displays her signature jewellery pieces and artefacts from around Africa.
Once a prayer hall for the Ismaili community on the island, it was deconsecrated when the Ismailis left the island, some 40 years ago and sold off. Digging through the sand-filled rubble, out came the pillars and the arches. The coffee shop serves home baked cakes, ice-creams, sorbets, teas and coffees. It’s at this point Chepyator points to etchings on the coral wall plastered in limestone with a sketch etched on it by some ancient mariner. It takes a local to know the little-known secrets of an ancient land.
Live the life in Lamu
Lamu is an interesting archipelago made up of Lamu, Pate and Manda islands. Lamu island has Lamu Stone Town, Shela, Matandoni and Kizingitini.
It’s well-worth reading some history of Lamu but if you don’t have the time wander into Lamu Museum for an introduction to the Lamu archipelago and Swahili history of the East African coast from its people, historical carved doors, exhibitions like the musical siwa horn (of ivory and brass) that was blown during occasions.
You have to do a dhow sail(s) through the mangrove-lined channels and stop on a clear beach. During the turtle hatching season ask the staff to book you with Lamu Marine Conservation Trust (LAMCOT) to watch the turtles hatch and dash to the ocean.
Fly Air Kenya to Lamu. Check its offers.