The call to prayer came before dawn, and while normally this would not vex me—an inveterate early riser—the mosque was only two lanes away from my bedroom. In the sweltering heat before the Kusi monsoon rains arrived to cool the East African coast, I had just finally drifted off after a bout with insomnia. Deep in the night, a donkey had brayed forlornly in a nearby alley, contributing to my exhausted state. But when the loudspeaker crackled to life and the muezzin chanted his request to the faithful, I wearily pushed back my tangled sheets and mosquito netting, then climbed stone stairs to a rooftop balcony that caught the faint breeze stirring off Lamu Channel. A sleepless night was a small price to pay for the privilege of watching the equatorial sun rise, red as a torch, while elegantly thin Swahilis in long white robes hurried, their slippers slapping rhythmically on pounded-dirt paths, to attend to their first obligation of the day.
For more than a thousand years, East Africa was a strategic stop on shipping routes linking the Arabian Peninsula, Europe, and the Indian Subcontinent. Gold, ivory, slaves, and spices were exchanged in ports of call along a 300-mile stretch of what is now Kenya but which belonged at various times to Portugal, the Sultanate of Oman, and the British Empire. This complicated history resulted in a rich layering of cultures, cuisines, and languages: Portuguese sailors, Arab artisans, Gujarati merchants, and British colonials all gravitated here to trade and farm. In Arabic, sahil means coast. It’s also the root word for Swahili, the coastal region’s predominant social group (whose language is officially called Kiswahili). The isolated Lamu archipelago, 150 miles north of Mombasa, is one of the best-preserved Swahili settlements. It consists of four main islands—Lamu, Manda, Pate, and Kiwayu—with a total population of 70,000, many of whom make their living fishing along the protective reef and the mangrove forest that rims the back channels.
More recently, Lamu has been discovered by a European coterie with a penchant for outpost chic. Princess Caroline of Monaco, jewelry designer and former Yves Saint Laurent muse Carolyn Roumeguere, and London cosmetics guru Mary Greenwell have all spent time here. My friend Anna Trzebinski, the Nairobi-raised fashion designer, grew up vacationing in Lamu and has long praised its charms. “As a child I played all day on the beach, collecting sand dollars and watching turtles hatch, then eating samosas and crème caramel,” she reminisced recently. Earlier trips to East Africa had taken me into the tribal hinterlands, so the idea of practicing Kiswahili while lounging on a vanilla-sand beach and eating samosas sounded like an ideal way to drop out of my own restless world.
“Pole, pole,” cautioned Nasser Hamden, steering a motor launch he had named Beyoncé into the current. We were on a morning ride to the market in Lamu Old Town, and as speedier boats whipped past, kicking up wakes that rocked our little wooden vessel, my patient young boatman repeated this phrase—Kiswahili for “take it slowly”—over and over. Hamden had picked up numerous nonpaying passengers: the louche “beach boys” who make an uneven living catering to the whims of tourists; mothers with babies; devout men in embroidered kofia caps. He dropped me off at the crumbling main pier, crowded with handcarts bearing sacks of basmati rice and cases of Stoney Tangawizi ginger soda.
The earliest of four settlements on Lamu Island—dating to the 14th century—Lamu Old Town was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, though it is by no means a static outdoor museum. Along high-walled lanes overgrown with jasmine, wealthy traders built stately houses of whitewashed coral stone, with inner courtyards and carved mahogany doors. Descendants continue their highly private lives behind these thick walls that shield them from the tropical sun. The streets of Old Town are generally too narrow to navigate except on foot, and there is only one car on the island, belonging to the district commissioner, who commutes the mile between his house and office.