Still waters

The placid charm and past glories of Lamu, an ancient port on Kenya's Swahili coast
Dhows sailing off Lamu island, Kenya
Dhows sailing off Lamu island, Kenya

The man has everything right. He wears a print African shirt with short sleeves it is a good batik. He does not try to be flashy with it &mdash it is a solid navy colour and does not drown his white skin. No fake blonde dreadlocks his hair is brown and cut short. He is not trying to be an authentic African because he is vain. We are on a small plane, strapping seatbelts and getting ready to fly to Lamu, a small island just off Kenya&rsquos Northern Coast, for the Lamu Cultural Festival, which is sponsored by the American embassy.

&nbspThe man has been chatting to me for ten minutes now, and he is irritating. He works at the US embassy. Maybe that&rsquos it. Noo. He is speaking in Kiswahili &mdash but his Kiswahili is perfect. First he speaks in Sheng &mdash a cool Nairobi street language based on Kiswahili then he shifts to clean and elaborate Coast Kiswahili. My Kiswahili is not very good. My Sheng is not so good. Maybe I am jealous. Noo. That&rsquos not it.

&nbspIt is that he has got it all wrong. His accent is perfect his tone, rhythm, everything. His timing is wrong. In this country, with many languages, classes and registers &mdash much is said by what is not said. There are many understood ways to address sometimes you shift quickly into English often you speak in a mock Kiswahili, in an ironical tone &mdash often simply to indicate to the people you are speaking to that you are not dogmatic about language, that you are quite happy to shift around and find their bandwidth.

  The man is dogmatic. And his exquisite politeness is rude &mdash he wants me to thank him for his cultural scrupulousness, and is unwilling to let me speak English or not speak at all. I am not an individual. I am a Cultural Ambassador. His proper Kiswahili demands that I be more attentive than I want to be &mdash inattention is impossible when somebody speaks in formal Kiswahili, it demands brotherhood and respect. I must nod, and say, ndio, ahaa, eh Yes. Ohh Eyebrows up, and eyes wide in mock-interest. It is going to be a long flight.

  Lamu town is the oldest living Swahili town in Kenya. All the tourist guides refer to it as an Arab town. It is not. The town is one of the last still viable reminders of the Swahili civilisation that dominated the East African coast for many centuries. There have been 300 Swahili towns all the way down the coast from Mogadicio in Somalia, to Sofala in Northern Mozambique.

 The Omani Arabs only took charge here in the last three centuries. When the British arrived to measure and label, they arranged the past in simple colour-codes and organised history to make the town belong to the lighter skinned, in the imagination of the world. Most Google results will baldly say Kiswahili is a mixture of Arabic and Bantu languages. It is not. It is a Bantu language with many words borrowed from Arabic. There is no Arabic influence in its grammar.

&nbspLamu was founded around the 12th century, and there is evidence that international trade has been taking place here for at least a millennium before this date. There were larger and more powerful city-states than Lamu in the past &mdash Siyu and Pate, for example. These cities are now mostly ruins. What makes Lamu interesting today is that basic architecture remains mostly intact. There are no cars on the island &mdash the narrow streets the thick walled stone and mangrove homes remain close to what they were three hundred years ago. The same and very different. For in those days, Lamu was much more than a museum. These days it is a World Heritage Site, acting out its past for it own fond memories, and for the curiosity of others.

&nbspWe walk out of the plane, and collect our luggage. PM, a young beach boy I befriended the last time I was in Lamu, is standing a few feet away, holding a posy of frangipani flowers, and looking sheepish in his stubby dreadlocks and baggy jeans. He winks at me. An elderly white woman, she must be at least 60, rushes past me, they hug, kiss, she oohaahs at the flowers.

&nbspThey walk away looking all aloha.

&nbspYoung men have come across from the island with carts, to take the luggage to the boats. Every hotel has its own cart, most have their own boats.

&nbspWe walk toward the mainland jetty on a red dusty path that is lined by stubbly bush. It is hot, and I am stuffy and irritable. There are sporadic groans and mumbles of sleepy blue water between the bushes, and people are yelling in lyrical Kiswahili and pushing carts, luggage bouncing in discomfort the earth yawns and stretches wide, a lazy, undulating blue, like a morning. And a few hundred metres across the water, I can see a standing daytime gleaming white beach to my left to the right a longish strip of gleaming white buildings the shining white tower of a mosque. Lamu island.


The man is old enough to be my father. My face becomes solemn immediately and I greet in as good and respectful Kiswahili as I can manage. It sounds all wrong and stilted. He hoists my bags onto his shoulders from the cart, smiling and bowing. I am not sure what to do. I continue to speak respectfully. My respect is instinctive, his very accents demands it. This is not even a class thing, or guilt. Kiswahili is just a tool for me &mdash for most Kenyans. An inherited language that 100 million Africans mutilate. Lamu, this small island is the home of the original dialect of Kiswahili, and of the Swahili civilisation.

&nbspWe walk down the jetty towards the boat. He has all my bags on his back, and I am stupid. Anywhere else in Kenya, we can pretend we are equals if we speak in Kiswahili, it is the national language and invites a feeling of brotherhood that does not really exist. But Kiswahili is Muhammed&rsquos mother tongue, he does not know how to play national games with it. Lamu is too far away from Kenya proper &mdash and Kiswahili is old and deep here. He is not reading my signals and I am resentful. I dig out crumpled notes and place them awkwardly into his hands as I board the boat, turning away from his gratitude.

&nbspMr American Embassy is Salamu Alaikuming all over the place &mdash and it occurs to me that I am now, to the people of this island, what he was to me when we boarded the plane.

&nbspIt is evening, and people are dressed up in public, men in long white kanzus women in black buibuis, henna designs on hands and fingers and feet. There are thousands of people in town for the festival small groups of male Sufi choralists are gathered all along the mile or so of seafront. Each group has one drummer with a huge hooked piece of wood, which he lifts and bangs onto the drum, THUMP, as the group sways forward and back, chanting. The whole seafront thumps every few seconds. A lean blonde couple stroll by both dressed in linen &mdash probably from Shella, the village next to Lamu where jetset celebrities, including the Princess of Monaco have holiday homes. A group of shirtless teenagers are surrounded by a cheering crowd as they dance a stick-fight there is a donkey race for young boys. Young Bajuni women in green and gold buibuis move in giggling huddles, eyes ringed with kohl, gold everywhere. I catch one eye, it bats, moves down shyly, and then covers itself with a flick of fingers and whoosh of fine green cloth. She turns into the fragrant huddle, which swells with speculation.

&nbspThe town slopes upwards gently, and all the narrow twisted paths lead to the seafront. The town is cleaned by rain and water heading downhill. I walk past the long, sea-facing avenue, and turn into a thin alley, into the bowels of the town. Buildings lean into each other, scrape each other, walls loom over narrow twisted paths.

&nbspLamu old town has 530 houses 496 are privately owned, 23 are considered public and 13 are religious buildings. Private and public in this town are clearly separated. Lamu has always had a reputation as a libertarian town. Most people spend most of their time indoors &mdash and even the house is built with the idea of public and private increasing layers of intimate space, the further away from the door you are. The doors are thick, tall and elaborately carved from wood just outside are benches built into the wings of the main door. It is here that guests are received there is a heavy metal knocker near the bottom of the door. You knock and sit and wait. Most people don&rsquot get to enter the home.

&nbspIn the old days traders would come in from India, the Middle and Far-East. As soon as you enter most traders&rsquo homes, you will see a small staircase that leads you to the room where foreign traders were hosted sumptuously, but still distant from the family. Lamu became a place of pilgrimage for hippies and gay men in the 1970s. It is the least judgemental community in Kenya. Outside the thick walls, and mostly in the evening, people put on their dutiful appearances mother, elder, imam, tourist.

&nbspBehind them, decadence is frequently embraced without censure. This appeals to many &mdash 40 percent of the old houses on the island are now foreign owned.

&nbspI wake up early the next day. The wind is warm and wild, and there are many dhows parked along the front of the town. Each dhow is decorated with flags and colours and is packed to the brim, and people are singing and cheering. As we get close to the Lamu jetty, I see thousands of people have lined the sea-facing main street of Lamu town.

&nbspGreeting and laughter and general goodwill bounces around us. The crowd swells to a roar as the boats set out on their race. There are colourful buoys littered all over the lagoon. It is not clear to me what route they are taking. And for a while it is not clear who is winning. Everybody here understands the language of sails and winds. Boats that seems to me to be doing well end up stranded and impotent as others slice past them leaning to the side, young muscular men pulling, lifting, shifting, sail high, sail low, sail down, sail up.

&nbspSoon it is clear. Two boats are racing for the finish the one that gets to the buoy first does not change direction fast enough and ends up stuttering, then slowing down. The one with a bright blue flag cuts through the water like a knife, the crew scrambling to shift weight when necessary. It is beautiful this boat, the group intelligence. The reading of chaos, of winds and waves, of muscle and weight.

&nbspAll this complex mathematics has found its way into our lexicon of modern shipping and travel. I know that it would take a lifetime of living here to be this good at this. But all this is worth nothing now. Dhows contribute little to the wealth of anybody in Kenya. This is Lamu &mdash living today, a glorious past, and an impotent present. Even the mangrove industry, which provided wood for scaffolding all of new Dubai, and for building the island, is now severely restricted by law.

&nbspThe winning boat reaches the jetty. All the young people of Lamu, it seems, board the boat and, to our horror, slowly the thing groans and creaks and turns, and starts to sink. The people continue to sing and shout, on the street thousands are cheering and waving and dancing. People jump into the water, thrashing and swimming. The crew is carried on the crowd&rsquos wet shoulders.

 The information

Getting there

 A return ticket from either Mumbai or Delhi to Nairobi on Air India&rsquos economy class costs Rs 25,203 including taxes (source Shikhar Travels, 011-41523667).

Once you get to Nairobi, you&rsquoll have to take another flight to Lamu. Air Kenya flies daily to Lamu island for approximately $140 one way. If you&rsquore elsewhere in Kenya, the airline also has daily flights from Mombasa and Malindi.

Where to stay

Budget There&rsquos plenty of characterful accommodation to be had in Lamu. Try Casuarinas Resthouse (US$ 6 42-633123), situated on the seafront and with large rooms. If you&rsquore travelling in a group of four or six persons, Wildebeeste ($40 632261) has two apartments with a kitchen for self-catering. 

Mid-range Jannat House offers attractive accommodation in an 18th-century merchant&rsquos house, and has a small but pretty pool as well. Low season (April 1-June 30) rates are $43 a double, with breakfast, 10% discount with online booking 

Luxury The Kipungani Explorer is situated on a deserted 14km stretch of beach and has 14 chalets constructed from local materials (mkeka matting floors and makuti thatched roofs). Rates begin from $205 per person. The Peponi Hotel costs from $115 for B&ampB. Check out both at (hit the &lsquoBeach Resorts&rsquo link on the left). To rent a posh home, contact Shailini Gidoomal (

Where to eat

Whispers, on Harambee Avenue, is a great ambient coffee-and-chill-out place. It has delicious espresso coffee and pastries, as well as meals. It&rsquos open during Ramadan. Open daily 9am-8.30pm (opening times vary in the low season). Cheap, wholesome, fresh seafood and fruit shakes can be had at Hapa Hapa Restaurant on the seafront. Just ask anybody. The barracuda steak and chips is sublime and the smoothies are made from fresh Kenyan fruit.

For authentic local food, move away from the seafront and explore the backstreets of Lamu it&rsquos packed with small eateries that serve up biryani, maandazi (coconut doughnuts) and other delicacies.


The Lamu Cultural Festival is held every November. It is a great time to see the island at its best. Contact Harita Waters at

Other Tips

The irrepressible, generous, informative and helpful Patrick Menza offers guide services (254-7230707051).

For more information on Lamu, visit

The village of Shella, situated 3km from Lamu town, has a spectacular 12km stretch of white sand beach. In the high season, its whitewashed houses are taken over by tourists who pay up to $10,800 a week for them, but empty in the low season (March to June). This is your moment rent a room at one of these houses for as little as $15 a night. Try Shella Royal House (254-722-698059,

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