Chris Harvie visits this exotic island off the Kenyan coast to find no cars, little alcohol, but lots of charm
IT had been an early start to catch the flight to Malindi, where a three-hour layover was just long enough to get a glimpse of the bottle-blond “glamour” and the pizzas and gelati that make this Italian enclave north of Mombasa, when contrasted with Lamu, so utterly unappealing. You need Italian to order a coffee. Flavio Briatore (latterly of Renault) has a house here. I asked our taxi driver if there was any crime. Only the Italians killing each other, he said. Over business, not women.
Landing at Lamu town later that morning, we were to meet Omar at the airport. We had been repeatedly assured that he was the best guide on the island. And there he was: a slight, round-faced man in a kufi. Omar and his wistful smile would be our companions for the next four days. With my rucksack on his back, he looked like an overloaded tortoise, leading us to the motorised dhow which would take us from the airport to the island.
Most places look best when approached from the sea and Lamu, this ancient Swahili town, is no exception.
Tall, white buildings with reed roofs line the water frontage, towering above myriad white-sailed dhows and the colourful apparel of the Muslim crowd aboard. Here and there, a taller, pillared building or the dome of a mosque breaks the skyline. The salt smell melds with the sweet spice and seaweed and the air is filled with the lively calls of the boat crews.
We were to stay at Yumbe House, a 10th-century, four-storey coral “castle” at the northern end of town. Omar led us through the labyrinthine streets, pointing out landmarks along the way to enable us to find the place on our own later on. It was no small task.
There are no vehicles on the island; only donkeys. The streets, with their towering walls, are therefore just wide enough for two donkeys to pass, rendering the lurching, laden advance of these creatures strangely threatening. And, for obvious reasons, you have to look immediately in front of you as well as ahead of you.
The bedrooms at Yumbe are at the top of a perilous set of steps, overlooking a courtyard, and open on all sides. Billowing batiks break the breeze in the apertures. There is no glass. The temperature is consistent all year round; light gusts of wind cool the rooms, day and night. We had a view right over the rooftops to the sea.
Sleeping up at the top of Yumbe was like sharing a dormitory with 20000 chattering people, 26 hollering muezzins and 4000 anti-social, braying donkeys. Not peaceful, but endlessly fascinating.
Like its cousins, Zanzibar and Mombasa, Lamu’s varied culture is deeply blended with its Muslim faith. There are Omanis, Arabs, Swahili people and Nguni people. There’s a splattering of Hindus, Europeans, a few Masai and the odd Rastafarian. On every stoep is a gathering of friends sharing stories and on every roof the children play hide-and-seek. The music owes as much to Bollywood as to the dictates of the imam; the dukas (Swahili for shop) that line the streets sell everything from tamarinds to hair-straightener. There’s soccer on the radio and karate posters on the walls. A cooling wind funnels down the corridor roads.
The fact that everyone travels on foot is a great leveller, thus the air is filled with cheerful greetings. Passing one mosque, the imam commented on my colleague’s Tiger Woods baseball cap. “I wish I was Tiger,” said my colleague. “I hope not nowadays,” said the imam, beaming benevolently. He was an Iranian, trained in Leeds, according to Omar. Such is the diversity of Lamu.
All the food is fresh. Breakfast at Yumbe is a feast of fruit – mango, pawpaw and granadilla – followed by a Spanish omelette. At lunch and for supper, we gorged ourselves on calamari, lobster, kingfish, red snapper and crabs the size of footballs. Beer and wine are hard to come by but the fresh juices are so delicious that it’s easy to forget about alcohol for a few days.
Many of the old Swahili merchants’ houses have been restored by Westerners, we discovered, as Omar led us around the town, but there is no resentment. Better that they are restored than that they fall down – and the work provides employment and perpetuates skills.
We spent the next two days lolling around in dhows. Our captain, Bubu, squatted on his haunches at the tiller while Hassan, his son, provided death-defying ballast on the trapeze. Omar and I bantered about our two countries’ politics as we swished up and down the mangrove-lined channels, the persistent cracks of the shell-breaking crabs around us and the swooping bee-eaters above.
We met the dhow-builders and basket-makers of Matondoni. We visited Takwa, the ruins of an abandoned Swahili settlement once home to 1330 people, and drank ginger tea at Shela, Lamu’s wealthier neighbour up the coast, with its never-ending sandy beaches.
On the last afternoon, after a wander around the museums and the fort, I took a walk up above the town and lost myself among the palm trees, the plantations, and the numerous sandy football pitches. As I walked past the girls’ school, a youngster, her hair covered by a hijab, leaned out of the window and said, in perfectly enunciated English, “Please will you bring us some chocolate?” I swear I would have done if I’d known where to find some.
Lamu is not perfect. There is a lot of rubbish lying on the beaches and floating in the sea; people complain about the sewerage system and the dirty water. I asked Omar what worried him about Lamu. Overcrowding? Pollution? Hunger? His answer was immediate. Nothing. How many people can say that about the place they live?
I was genuinely sorry to say goodbye to him and his gentle peace, his innate intelligence and the intangible sadness that hung about him; but there was one aspect of Lamu I wouldn’t miss.
A Swahili proverb says: “A man without a donkey is a donkey”. As I boarded the dhow for the last time, a particularly over-confident creature bared its teeth at me only metres away and trumpeted repeatedly with all the excruciating volume of a vuvuzela. Confirmation that I will always be a donkey.
Recipe: James Wainnan’s fresh fruit juice
Add the flesh of six large passion fruit (or four bananas or three mangoes or one pineapple or a few tamarind or six lemons or anything else you like or any combination of the above) to half a cup of chilled water and blend. When pulped, sieve the remaining mixture, return it to the jug and blend again with eight blocks of ice, another half cup of chilled water and sugar to taste. It’s simple and delicious. Drink with a straw from a pint mug.