Published Saturday magazine Nation newspaper 21 October 2017
Above: Sand dunes of Shela looking across at Manda Island – Copyright Rupi Mangat
Shela was Lamu’s (town) poorer cousin. Set on the same island of Lamu, l’m reading an interesting account of Shela in ‘Quest for the Past’ an historical guide to Lamu archipelago by Chrysee MacCasler Perry Martin and Esmond Bradley Martin published in 1969. The sultan of Pate sacked Kitau on Manda island in mid-14th century and the people fled to Lamu town as refugees. 200 years later, they asked the Sheikh of Lamu if they could build their own town. He agreed but on condition that no stone building was to be built in Shela.
“There were only makuti-thatched houses here when l was a boy,” recalls Tawfiq Ahmed Ali of
. “Even this house was just a one storey with a makuti roof. We built the rest later when tourism picked up.”
It’s strange to picture modern-day Shela as a simple fishing village.
Going back to the book, Shela had a brief period of prosperity in the 19th century when fine stone houses with ornately decorative walls were built by the Arabs who owned large plantations that were worked on by slaves. But when the slaves began to leave by the 1890s, Shela slumbered again. By 1960s, there were fewer than 250 people and of the 100 fine houses, only 40 were occupied. Most youngsters had left.
Enjoying a hearty breakfast by the ocean-front dining, the water’s animated with a shoal of flying fish – silver flashes jumping out of the water. Wooden dhows and speedboats ferry people between Lamu town, Manda and Shela. It’s an idyllic view.
Strolling around the now thriving holiday town, it boasts gorgeous Swahili-influenced holiday homes through narrow alleys bursting with pops of colours of the bougainvillea.
Famau Shukri of Lamu Marine Conservation Trust, a hard-core turtle man meets us by the dunes of Shela.
“Shela is the mother beach of turtle’s nests,” he says proudly. “In 2015, we had 20 nests on Shela beach, a record number since we began keeping records in 1992.”
Having been on earth longer than the dinosaur, modern challenges threatens the gentle mariner – anything from drowning in fishers nests, swallowing plastic, bumping into big ships to hatchlings heading towards bright lights instead of the ocean.
It’s estimated that one in every 1,000 survives.
The excited Famau continues. “Turtle juveniles like to hang around the mangroves around the island.”
Sailing across from Manda island to Lamu island, a Green turtle surfaces for a split second to breathe and dive down again to nibble on the coral gardens below.
Famau escorts us up the dunes that until 20 years ago were just sand mountains. We walk past the
A flight of steps takes us to the top of the nearest dune giving an eagle-eye view of Shela and the ocean.
We pass more stunning homes of the rich on the dunes – and then the most amazing view of dune after dune after dune for 12 kilometers. From this high vantage point – a towering 200 feet above sea-level, the open ocean stretches to the horizon. Then the mosaic of the mangrove lined channels and Manda Island with its gorgeous beach.
The dunes are Lamu’s life-lung. Soaking in the rainwater, they are a natural water reservoir and a wind-break, protecting the island from the ravages of the sea like the Tsunami in 2004.
Doum palms and thorn trees grow scattered on the sand mountains and we run down to the beach walking along its shores back to what used to be a simple fishing village.
Shela’s famous historical event is the Battle of Shela where the Sultan of Pate decided to throw the gauntlet at the more powerful Lamu sultan’s feet. In 1812, his army sailed in from Pate and fought the battle forgetting about the tide – it left them stranded on the beach to be slaughtered by the enemy. It’s said that for years the Shella beach was littered with the sun-bleached bones of the stranded army.
We reach the Friday mosque with its tall white minaret gleaming in the sun. Built in 1829, it’s a landmark surrounded by the new.
Enroute to Shella Bahari, lies a secluded centuries-old grave with a mini-coral wall that’s also seen on the Omani graves as far as Mkwiro village on Wasini island and other of the sultanate.
Back at Shella Bahari, we close the door behind us – it’s a beautiful white-washed apartment with the traditional notches and decorative plaster work on the wall. The chef brings in the Swahili fish cooked in coconut and spices and we dine on our balcony as the dhows move silently through the night.
Stay at Shella Bahari: firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s on the waterfront. Book a room or the whole house.
Plenty to do in Shela from discovering history, the ocean and the arts.
Watch the short clip of our stay at Shela