Published: The East African Nation magazine: 13 – 19 Feb 2021
February, tis the season of love with Valentine fixed on its calendar. I’m on the isle of Lamu, stepping into Subira House, a 19th century house that belonged to the liwali (governor) of Lamu and lovingly restored by the Aarts, the Swedish-Dutch couple who met on the island in the 1970s and have been together ever since. It’s a testimony to love.
Up on my rooftop room, l’m in a magical world. I have the privacy of the sky above with the turrets of Lamu Fort across the narrow alley. It was built around the same time by the sultan of Lamu to hold his might against the invaders in a bygone age.
An artist sets up his aisle on one of the verandahs of the Swahili house to paint the Lamu houses across the narrow alleys. The light softens, the muezzin calls the faithful for prayers and l step out to stroll on the seafront promenade with the dhows anchored below and women in their buibuis and men in long white kanzus enjoying the night breeze .
Under a spectacular sky lit with the stars we dine in the open courtyard of Subira that was a feature of noble Swahili houses. The fragrance of the scented flowers waft through the air as we are served fresh tuna caught on the day, set in lime and oil.
The night passes until the call of the muezzin announces another day. Down in the courtyard, we stretch and start the yoga class, limbering up for the day. And then it’s breakfast – everything fresh – mango juice with ginger, home-made bread with peanut spread and passion jam with eggs and a fruit platter.
We wander out again through the narrow streets. A boy rides his donkey to school, a woman stops to buy spices at the store and we reach the jetty to catch a dhow to Shela, the neighbouring town.
It’s busy with tourists… unmasked. Many have left Europe fed up with being cooped up inside with the Covid and cold climes. “I left six months ago,” says Geraldine Hurez from Paris who rented out her apartment and decided to travel the world. She’s finding a new life in Lamu, exploring the isle and the arts, walking the beaches and meeting new people every day.
It’s mid-morning. The breeze is gentle, the water startling blue. We stroll along the beach to the far end where the narrow channel between the islands of Manda and Lamu open to the deep sea. Golden-flecked sand dunes tower alongside and l step into the ocean. It’s warm and soothing.
There’s little to do but soak in the sun and the sea until lunch hour when we treat ourselves to prawn curry at the Shela Bahari Guest House.
Later in the evening when the sun cools, l weave my way through the alleys back in Lamu Stone Town that is a World Heritage Site. I have to stop every few steps to admire the carved wooden doors that tell a story of their own when Lamu thrived as a powerful sultanate where gigantic booms or dhows sailed in from the Indian sub-continent and the Arabian peninsula to exchange silk and spices for mangroves, elephant tusks and rhino horns and before that, slaves.
The bazaar is busy, a mix of old and new shops dealing in silver jewellery and Lamu furniture, fashion wear and motorbikes. Lamu is changing.
Dinner on the Dhow
The following afternoon, we climb aboard a dhow for a sunset sail past along the mangrove-lined beaches as the fiery sun makes its way down the sand dunes. The lateen sail is opened to catch the wind. The crew – Mohamed, Ali and Ahmed take turns to handle the sail, light the jiko and prepare a feast on board. It’s a typical Swahili meal of rice in coconut milk, grilled tuna and kachumbari followed by the sweetest mangos in season.
It’s quiet with just the ocean breeze as we sail back to Lamu and stroll past the centuries-old fort to our house.
The days pass. On the last day we’re back to the far-end of Shela and the dunes, a swim in the ocean and then my dhow arrives to sail me to Manda to catch my flight. There’s no time to change as l slip on my dress over my swim suit. Omar the dhow captain sets his fishing line. “It’s the fishing season,” he tells me. The kaskazi winds that the sailors from the east once used to sail to the shores of the east coast of Africa are bringing in the big fish. The line goes taught but the fish escapes. Was it a barracuda or a tuna? I wish Omar better luck next time as l step ashore to catch the afternoon flight to the city.
Safarilink offers a daily flight to Lamu – Check out the website for super-fantastic deals from Lamu to Kisumu on Victoria’s shores. It’s the time to travel.
Subira House is out of a romantic era with private roof top rooms, courtyards, and a lot of history with it being listed as a Heritage House.
There’s no shortage to dining out from spicy street food and seafront restaurants to dining on the dhows.