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Lamu Archipelago: The Jeweled Islands of the Coast
Lamu is an exceptional place like no other that is situated in the Lamu Archipelago in a tranquil tropical island where life is appreciated at its own relaxed rhythm. Its history is as intriguing and enchanting as the winding streets of its marvelous old stone town. This island is a beautiful place of rolling dunes and endless beaches, where tiny villages nestle among coconut and mango plantations as lateen sailed dhows ply the quite waters. Lamu is an idyllic place to unwind and relax, where you can immerse yourself in medieval antiquity, only interrupted by the braying of donkeys and the devoted calls to prayer from the many mosques on the island.
Some believe that the island has been settled since the 7th century, although the first written history of the island dates back to 1402. Folklore also speaks fondly of the lost city of Hadibu, an Arab settlement buried beneath the rolling dunes of Shela beach, when the islands of the Lamu Archipelago grew wealthy on fortunes brought in from the East over the ages. Now they offer visitors the luxury of expansive virgin beaches, a laid-back lifestyle and beautiful private villas. Governed by tides and seasons, nothing happens quickly around here at this UNESCO World Heritage site and Lamu looks much as it did in the drawings rendered 200 years ago.
Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is the islands real attraction. It is characterized by the simplicity of its structural forms enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and intricately carved wooden doors. As the most populous part of the island, it is recognized as one of the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlements in East Africa. It is still acknowledged as Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town and was one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa.
The town was first mentioned in writing by an Arab traveller, Abu-al-Mahasini, after his encounter with a judge from Lamu who was on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1441. There are however some other accounts that mention the Chinese ships of Zheng He’s fleet sinking near Lamu Island in Kenya in 1415. It is now confirmed that the survivors who settled on the island intermarried with the local women. This has been proven recently by archaeological discoveries on the island that has resulted in the finding of evidence which suggests this connection. According to credible sources further DNA testing done on some of its residents show that they indeed have Chinese ancestors!
Lamu town flourished as an independent city-state until Portuguese traders, seeking to control the lucrative market with the Orient, invaded it in 1506. The Portuguese invasion was prompted by their successful mission to control trade along the coast of the Indian Ocean. For some considerable time, Portugal had a monopoly on shipping along the East African coast where they imposed export taxes on the established local channels of commerce. Over the course of the 16th century, the once prosperous Swahili town lost its middleman position and gradually declined to oblivion. In the 1580s, Lamu led an aggressive rebellion against the Portuguese that was precipitated by the Turkish raids on the island.
In 1652, Oman joined the resistance with the help of the Turks until 1698, when the last Portuguese forces finally surrendered. The Omani’s who had helped overcome the European invaders now became the dominant force in the region. Lamu later spent its years as an Omani protectorate under their domination from around 1813, after the Battle of Shela, marking the beginning of its golden age. During this period, Lamu became a center of poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as the trade.
After defeating Pate Island in the nineteenth century, Lamu advanced to become a local power. The island remained prosperous for over two hundred years until the late 19th century but declined after the British forced the closure of the slave markets in 1873, when the British began to take greater interest in East Africa. In 1890 the island was made part of Zanzibar after they forced concessions on the ruling Sultan leading to the established of the East Africa Protectorate in 1895. Lamu town then became the headquarters of Lamu District under the administration of a resident British official together with a Muslim official. The island’s economy continued to be based on slave trade until abolition ending in Lamu’s obscurity until Kenya was granted independence from Great Britain in 1963.
Each of its aspects give a graphic demonstration of its cultural impact infused with several hundred years of European, Arabian and Indian influences. Lamu Old Town is now recognized as a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, since 2001, based on these distinguishing features entailed its architecture and urban structure. They are essentially a utilization of traditional Swahili techniques to produce a very distinct ambiance and culture. The growth and decline of the seaports on the East African coast. In addition to interactions between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians and Europeans also represent a significant cultural and economic phase in the history of the region. Its paramount trading role and attraction for scholars and teachers also gave Lamu an important religious function in the region, which it still maintains to this day.
In 2011, proposals were advanced to build a deep-water port which would have much greater capacity in terms of depth of water, number of berths and ability for vessels to maneuver simultaneously, eclipsing the country’s main port at Mombasa.
Agriculture had been the most important economic activity for Lamu until its plantations withered after imperial proclamations made the procurement of slaves increasingly difficult and expensive. In addition to its abolition, construction of the Uganda Railroad in 1901, which started from the competing port of Mombasa, significantly hampered Lamu’s ailing economy. This introduction of the Uganda Railroad stretching from Mombasa to Lake Victoria in 1901, left Lamu somewhat isolated. As the railroad’s terminus Mombasa later became the main seaport of the East African coast, Lamu was relegated to a minor role as a small local harbor.
With neither trade in traditional exports which were shipped via the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and India nor agriculture to support the economy. Lamu stagnated and was in a full-scale depression by the mid-1920s. Subsequently the population in Lamu fell by nearly half as it drifted into economic obscurity as a small, remote island town. Ironically, it was the town’s isolation from 20th century modernization that preserved the rich architectural heritage that is still recognized to this day.
The rapid population growth coupled with an increased awareness of our cultural heritage led government officials and residents to undertake an extensive conservation study of Lamu town in the early 1970’s. Today the mangrove exports, commerce, and government jobs paired with traditional maritime occupations continue to provide a stable economic base for the growth of the town since the 1960s. Tourism has also continued to gradually refuel the local economy in recent times. This current increase in tourism has contributed an additional source of revenue for the popular island.
Swim in the turquoise waters, stroll the pristine deserted beaches, experience Lamu’s rich swahili culture, wander the charming streets of Lamu, Shela and Matondoni and indulge in exquisite fresh seafood or al fresco dining by the sea!
The Lamu Old town contains many fine examples of Swahili architecture worth visiting though there are no roads on the island, just alleyways and footpaths. Lamu is also famous for its woodcarvers whose specialties include the famous carved Lamu doors, furniture, signboards and Swahili boxes, intricately carved and inlaid with brass, copper or marble work. This makes it an ideal place to shop for well priced coastal handicrafts and artful souvenirs.
Lamu has a long history related to dhows and lots of stories about dhow sailing trips. You can go for a cruise on one of the traditional Arab sailing vessels with one or more lateen sails, which is a very sought after experience offered in Lamu. They are relatively inexpensive and you can explore the Lamu archipelago by dhow as you enjoy the romantic sunset cruises or day excursions. You can combine tours to historical ruins and snorkeling which will offer you a unique opportunity to sleep on a cruising dhow as you savor fresh caught fish on the beach.
Dhows are primarily used along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, India and East Africa. Dhow safaris can take you beyond Lamu into the surrounding archipelago where isolated villages, ancient ruins plus a few luxurious and exclusive resorts lie hidden among the islands. You can go as far as Manda Island, Takwa Ruins or Matondoni, Siyu, Pate and Kiwayu. Dhow trips are also available at any hotel including Peponi in Shela and Lamu House. Today, several local captains have taken to Mozambique dhows which are wider and more comfortable than the traditional Lamu boats to enhance their services.
It’s best to rent dhows from the locals, especially in Lamu Town, where they are an essential part of the economy. Several companies specialize in trips to Kiwayu but you can also go directly to the local captains, who know the islands and the villages best not to mention the sea. One small company called Nature+Culture has made Kiwayu and ecotourism its specialty through its close relationship with the communities. They offer smaller trips and the company’s owner, Gabriel Suleiman, is a former soccer star who is well-known and respected in the region. Another company, Sailkenya, also runs three-day trips.
The delightful people of Lamu are great believers in tradition and custom as this is a strong society built on a respect for the past. Once a center for the slave trade, the population of Lamu is ethnically diverse. Lamu was on the main Arabian trading routes, and as a result, the population is largely Muslim. The obvious culinary attraction in Lamu is seafood and there is plenty available with excellent fish, crabs, lobster, oysters and more. There is also an abundance of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables.
There are several other museums, including the Lamu Museum home to the island’s ceremonial horn known as the siwa. There are other museums that are also dedicated to Swahili Culture and to the local postal services. Some of these notable buildings in the old town include:
This is a massive two storey stone structured located 70m inland at the main jetty. Fumo Madiibn Abi Bakr, the Sultan of Pate, started to build the fort on the seafront to protect members of his unpopular regime. Its construction commenced in 1813 shortly after Lamu’s victory over Pate and Mombasa in the battle of Shela and completed in the early 1820s. The major building task was reputedly undertaken with the cooperation of Seyyid Said, the Sultan of Oman who was cultivating a promising new alliance with the rulers in Lamu.
Upon its completion in about 1821 the fort marked the southern corner of the traditional stone town and served as a garrison for Baluchi soldiers sent by the Sultan of Oman. Its protective presence encouraged new development around it. By 1900 the Fort had become a central to the community, a role which it still plays today. It served as a prison from 1910 to 1984 to both the British colonial regime and the Kenya government, before it was handed over to the National Museums of Kenya in 1984.
Efforts to turn the Fort into a museum were started with technical and financial assistance from Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). With its inception as a museum with environmental conservation as its general theme; Lamu Fort is basically a community center for the people of Lamu old town. The courtyard is available for weddings, meetings and theater productions. At the ground floor there is a large exhibition space, which most recently hosted the first Environmental Museum in Africa. Upstairs there are administrative offices, laboratories, a workshop and a rooftop with impressive views over the town. There is also an excellent conference facility that is available for hire.
These ruins were first gazetted in March 1929 as ‘Ruins of Mnarani’. It is a scenic, serene site that was first occupied in the early 14th century before the Great Mosque was built in AD 1425. Close to the first Mosque is a smaller mosque which was constructed after a similar one in the same location. The foundation of its Mihab may still be seen east of the present Miharb. The original mosque was built around 1475, while the later mosque in about 1500.
Lamu has hosted major Muslim religious festivals since the 19th century, and has become a significant center for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures. Habib Salih, a Sharif with family connections to the Hadramaut. Also spelled Hadhramaut, was an ancient South Arabian Kingdom that occupied what are now the southern and southeastern Yemen and the present day Sultanate of Oman in Yemen. He settled on Lamu in the 1880s, and became a highly respected religious teacher. Habib Salih had great success gathering students around him and in 1900 the Riyadha Mosque was built. He introduced Habshi Maulidi, where his students sang verse passages accompanied by tambourines. After his death in 1935 his sons continued the Madrassa, which became one of the most prestigious centers for Islamic Studies in East Africa. The Mosque is the center for the Maulidi Festival which is held every year during the last week of the month of the Prophet’s birth. During this festival pilgrims from Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Zanzibar and Tanzania join the locals to sing the praise of Mohammad.
Since the island has no motorised vehicles, transportation and other heavy work is done with the help of donkeys. There are currently close to 3000 working donkeys on the island. Dr. Elisabeth Svendsen of the Donkey Sanctuary in England first visited Lamu in 1985. Worried by the conditions for the donkeys, the Sanctuary was opened in 1987. The Sanctuary provides treatment to all donkeys free of charge.
Lamu German post office
This building is located in Lamu old town.was the first German Post Office ever established along the East African coast. The Post office was established on November 22nd 1888 by the Germans led by Clement Denhardt. The communications and trade contacts for the German Protectorate in Witu could at the time be served through Lamu, as a well-established town with links to the outside world. The Post office operated for more than two years before its closure on March 3rd 1891 after the withdrawal of the German settlement in Witu.
The Lamu museum was the former residence of the British Governors during the colonial era. Visitors here, can enjoy the experience of learning about the rich Swahili culture that is embodied in Lamu Town.
Other attractions around Lamu Island
In addition to Lamu Town, there are other fascinating villages on Lamu Island. Some of which are favored getaways and retreats for famous celebrities like Sir Richard Branson, Songstress Sade and Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger.
It is on the North end of the Lamu island set on a beautiful stretch of white sand and tiny broken sea shells. The walk from main Lamu town is only about a mile and a half and well worth it due to the welcoming locals you meet on the way. Watch for the young boys selling delicious homemade samosas on the beach.
Known for the building and repairing of dhows, the whole village is surrounded by mangrove trees.
This is a small private village that is secluded and extremely low key that is placed in the south western coast of the island.
Kiunga Marine National Reserve
The marine ecosystem incorporates a chain of about 50 calcareous offshore islands and coral reefs in the Lamu Archipelago, running for some 60km parallel to the coastline and adjacent to Dodori and Boni National Reserves on the mainland.
The larger and more sheltered inner islands are covered with tangled thorny vegetation including grass, aloes and creepers. The small outer islands provide nesting sites for migratory seabirds. The reserve conserves valuable coral reefs, sea grass and extensive mangrove forests and is also a refuge for sea turtles and dugongs. Major wildlife attractions include reptiles such as Sea turtles, Olive ridley, and Reef fish. Lobsters, Sea urchins, Sea star and also frequent sightings in the reserve. It is an important site for wind surfing, diving and snorkelling, water skiing and sunbathing.
Practical Travel information
Lamu’s narrow streets remain unchanged, and the winding streets of the towns are best explored on foot or bicycle. Many locals also use donkeys in the markets and squares around the fort where life moves at the same pace as it always has. The island is still linked by boat to Mokowe on the mainland and to Manda Island, where there is an airport.
Residents move about on foot or by boat, and donkeys are used to transport goods and materials since there are few motorized vehicles on the island. Due to the narrowness of the streets, automobiles are not allowed. Shela village and the beaches are also accessible by foot. Alternatively dhows regularly carry paying passengers back and forth from Lamu town to Shela.
To access the surrounding islands of Manda, Pate or Siyu, either take an organized Dhow Safari or for the adventurous traveller, just hitch a ride on a passing dhow and explore. It is also possible to hire donkeys to ride around the island.
Tour guides are licensed on Lamu and they will show you their license on request and they have a well-organized association and work together cooperatively. Recently, Lamu dhow operators joined hands and formed a dhow organization called “Promise/Ahadi.” Their aim is to offer standard prices and insure cheating of tourists does not occur on Lamu. These young men really made an effort to improve the tourist experience in Lamu, while also trying to empower themselves. They offer quality services and affordable, reasonable cost-ratio rates for their services. Check out their website at http://www.lamutrips.com or stop in and visit their booking office close to the German Post Office Museums or look for them along the Lamu Seafront wearing bright blue T-Shirts and badges of their organization.
Lamu is still a popular destination for backpackers. While Al-Shabaab kidnappings placed Lamu off-limits since September 2011, the island is now considered safe. On April 4, 2012, The US Department of State lifted its Lamu travel restriction. From respect to the Muslim inhabitants, tourists in town are expected to wear more than shorts or bikinis.
How to get there
Lamu is best accessed by air. There are scheduled flights daily from Nairobi, Mombasa, Diani Beach and Malindi. The island is serviced by an airstrip on neighbouring Manda Island. The strip can also be used by private charters. A dhow ferries arriving passengers to either Lamu town or Shela. Many yachts also come to Lamu, often sheltering in the channel near Shela.
Where to stay
There are many unique luxury hotels, retreats and houses on Lamu and the surrounding islands of Manda and Kiwayu. Each hotel and house in Lamu has its own character and charm. Whether you are searching for a quiet weekend getaway from Nairobi at a boutique beach hotel or a luxury Lamu house rental for a romantic or family getaway from Europe, there is something for everyone.
Accommodation in Lamu archipelago ranges from budget hotels and guesthouses to the luxury of the Peponi Hotel in the village of Shela and private houses in Kipungani at the island’s far end.
Nature + Culture offer a range of accommodations from backpacker guesthouses in Lamu to mid-range and luxury rentals in Shela village. Again, this company goes local whenever possible without compromising quality. There are some exclusive listings of private houses which are real finds.
This place is known for its unusual mix of travelers reminiscent of the 60s Euro-voyage to India in search of enlightenment in spectacular natural beauty and ancient culture. In Lamu, that happens. See the ancient eco-houses of limestone and coral rock in this unique, natural, unspoiled place. Community values are comfort, safety and hospitality. Reaching out to people, between people, is a community practice.
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