Touring Kenya's Lamu Archipelago
Published: September 2010
By Shane Mitchell
For centuries, Lamu was at the very center of the trade map, drawing a steady influx of Arabs, Africans, Indians, and Europeans. The result: a rich cultural and culinary mix.
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.
“Mama! Do you want a ride on my dhow?” It’s the first thing I always heard from insistent touts while climbing up the mollusk-crusted jetty steps. They followed eagerly as I ducked through a crowd of women in swirling black chiffon and dodged beasts of burden hauling mangrove poles along the waterfront promenade. Brightly painted fishing boats tilted on their carved keels in the outgoing tide. My arrival in Lamu coincided with Maulidi, the spring celebration of Muhammad’s birth, honored locally with donkey sprints and dhow races. The festival was still five days away, but pilgrims were already packing guesthouses and restaurants.
I wandered through Old Town’s main square, which is shaded by a giant fig tree. Behind the square loomed a mold-blackened fort, built in the early 1800’s, before Lamu was eclipsed by Mombasa. Having spent time in Kenya’s largest port city—a tumultuous place of honking buses, crooked merchants, and dark corners—Lamu’s backwater status suited me just fine. Around the fort’s perimeter women proffered live chickens in woven baskets. Vendors set up impromptu stands to sell fruit cups and coffee. A lovely older man named Islam brewed the finest arabica, ground and boiled on the spot in a big urn and poured into tiny porcelain cups. It was like sipping rocket fuel spiced with ginger and cardamom. Paired with hot mandazi, a yeasty fritter light as any beignet, Islam’s coffee became part of my morning routine. (And perhaps the root of my insomnia.)
Small shops along the main thoroughfare stock everything from Zanzibar peppercorns and chewing tobacco to disposable cell phones and marine-engine parts. I paused at one displaying an encyclopedic selection of brightly patterned kanga cloth edged with amusing messages in Kiswahili: Please stop teasing me or It takes two to make a marriage. Swahili women fashion these fabrics into sarongs and informal head coverings to wear at home, where they can shed the dark bui-bui veiling typically worn in public. A breed of short-haired cats with exceptionally pointed ears, resembling their ancestors in Egyptian hieroglyphs, strayed everywhere. “The cats of Lamu are always satisfied,” said a vendor as he fed them scraps. One licked its paws while perched on a counter in the fish market.
A historical museum, a donkey sanctuary, and a couple of mediocre sculpture galleries are Old Town’s sole standard tourist amusements. It was only when I ventured out of the market area and into a labyrinth of backstreets that the place revealed itself. The pressing offers of touts and other professional opportunists faded away, but more children, their shyness overcome, ran up to me shouting greetings: “Jambo! Jambo!” Several mosques were marked solely by the pairs of slippers left at the entrance. Boys in skullcaps with large brooms swept dirt from the cool dark halls of their primary school. Young girls in head scarves carried home yellow plastic jugs filled with water from a well. At a fruit stand a woman kindly offered me some passion fruit, brown and pitted but tartly ripe and wonderfully fragrant inside. (Swahilis have an exceedingly formal sense of hospitality.) Inside a sawdust-strewn workshop, men were carving ornate floral designs in panels for new front doors and the traditional ebony chairs called kiti cha mpingo. And at the very northern end of town, just before an unpainted bungalow owned and still used by the Leakeys, East Africa’s famous clan of anthropologists, I found a curious shack fashioned entirely from flotsam that turned out to be the studio of a craftsman who makes miniature dhows.
By late afternoon I was flushed red in the face and parched. Returning to the promenade, I stopped at Olympic, a modest restaurant run by a hefty lady named Mama Fatuma, to taste her fluffy coconut rice with mango chutney. Infused with cinnamon, clove, and cumin seed then simmered in fresh coconut milk, this Swahili dish proved positively addictive. Fatuma, who holds court at a table just outside the kitchen, explained that the chutney was specially made for the restaurant by a man in Mombasa. Fatuma’s son Abdul, a roly-poly toddler, was perched on a low windowsill eating an apple. Other children regarded his prize hungrily. When his mother wasn’t looking, Abdul mischievously made a break for the waterfront, chasing after his laughing friends. The kitchen came to a halt until he was recovered.
In Old Town it’s possible to snack continuously rather than sit down in any one place for a meal. As the day faded, I grazed through darkened alleys where cooks set up glowing charcoal braziers to hawk roasted cashews, lentil-and-potato bhajias, lime-marinated beef skewers, and cassava chips dusted with chili powder. Blending fried potatoes into an omelette called chips mai yai, one vendor told me, “When you cook pole pole, then the food is good.” The monsoon breezes that carried ships laden with cloves and peppercorns to the East African coast also brought multiethnic cooks who eventually created the sophisticated cuisine of Lamu—biryanis and curries, couscous and pasta—which is far more nuanced than the frugal nomadic diet of the interior.
“What do you want to drink tonight?” Satan asked.
I never found out his real name, but he certainly looked the part: hooded eyes, sardonic mouth, a Che Guevara beret on knotted Rasta locks. Satan presided over the rooftop bar at Petley’s Inn, a waterfront joint where voyeurs mingled with quasi-piratical locals. He poured me a Tusker Lager and cordially revived our discourse on vegetarian cafés and chutney vendors. But when a sloppy tourist tried to interject, the Nairobi street tough emerged. Satan glared at the man. “What the hell do you know about Swahili food?” he snapped. The drunk left me alone after that.
Satan allowed some of the better-behaved beach boys—the ones with neatly combed hair, cell phones, and surf shorts—to mingle on sofas scattered by the windows above the promenade. Drinking sodas and trolling for customers who might make their dreams of a foreign visa come true, they reminded me of courtesans or geisha. Lamu would certainly be duller without their flirtatious banter. “Mama, I want to come, too!” one giggled as I said good night. It was unclear whether he wanted a ride in Hamden’s boat or a place in my bed. Like my bartender friend, I found these boys wickedly adorable.
Three miles south of Old Town is Shela Village, which Swahilis have nicknamed “Little Europe” for reasons that became obvious. It’s nearer to the beach, so wealthy expats and the Nairobi elite tend to favor this sedate settlement. Some of the neocolonialists are responsible for a recent building spree of villas imitating earlier Swahili architecture, sometimes side-by-side with less ambitious but equally attractive banda bungalows of coconut-palm matting and varnished mangrove poles. (Across the channel from Lamu, a row of them dominates the dunes on Manda Island.) Shela also has several lovely Swahili-style guesthouses—converted 18th-century traders’ villas—austerely decorated with antiques and ceiling fans; garden fountains and shaded courtyards keep travelers cool.
Compared to Lamu Old Town, insular Shela seemed deserted. Many of the grander villas belonging to overseas owners were shuttered for the low season. But a languorous day splashing in shallow water on the long wide beach fronting Lamu Bay was a salty restorative. Fishermen waded waist-deep with wide nets to catch shrimp in the current and dhows raised their triangular sails to skirt past the coral reef. After walking up and over sand hills back into the still village, I browsed the shelves at a little grocery store that sold hard sesame candies and striped Kenyan cotton kikoi: much cooler than jeans, and more versatile than beach tunics. I purchased far too many, under the misguided rationale that the tasseled lengths of fabric could always be turned into pillows.
Shela’s social hub is the Peponi Hotel. It has 24 guest rooms with mahogany beds and a gift shop displaying tempting gold jewelry by Nairobi designers. But expats gather here because the waterfront veranda bar is one of the better places on the coast to find a decent cocktail, and Charles, the smiling head bartender, pours with a generous hand. His specialty is an Old Pal made with vodka, lime, and bitters. The Peponi and Petley’s are worlds apart. Sipping South African Sauvignon Blanc on the low balustrade next to lapping waves, I behaved myself even when a sunburned Englishman in baby-pink slacks rudely barked at the patient Swahili waiter. The hotel’s co-owner Carol Korschen, a tall blonde in white linen, graciously checked on other guests who needed their sundowners refreshed and more plates of “bitings,” or appetizers. She urged me to sample salty seaweed and delicate cucumber pickles, specially made in a village on the other side of the island. And I fell in love with the grilled giant prawns in a searing piri-piri chili sauce best tempered with lime chutney, served on white linen in the hotel’s breezy dining room.
As Lamu overflowed with Maulidi pilgrims, I deserted the island to avoid being stampeded by enthusiastic donkey riders, who were already doing practice sprints along Old Town’s flag-festooned promenade. With a swimsuit and some toiletries wrapped in a makeshift kikoi bundle, I hired a small powerboat to take me deeper into the archipelago. We traveled north on a canal between clusters of mangrove into Manda Bay, rounding Pate Island as numerous dhows headed the other way. I waved to the crews dressed in matching T-shirts for the upcoming competition. The captain, Ali, told me the red strings hanging from their masts were juju luck tokens. During the races some crews even throw live chickens overboard for additional good fortune.
After two hours, the terrain we passed shifted from mangrove forest to dry hills and scrub: this was Kiwayu, the northernmost island in the archipelago, and the least developed—closer in character to the tribal mainland. The boat turned into a half-moon bay with a fishing village at one end and our destination, Kiwayu Safari Lodge, at the other, nearer the reef. Under a fringe of coconut palms, the barefoot camp consists of little more than thatch huts and a main dining banda. My quarters contained a rope hammock, a bed, and a discreet bath in an alcove. There were no windowpanes, no doors, no locks—simple, yet perfectly suited to the far-off setting. The lodge’s English manager, George Moorehead, often barters with tribesmen for wild honeycomb, gathered from prickly acacia trees, to serve at breakfast. When he heard how much I love the rich taste of the mud crabs that thrive in the mangroves, a meaty pair landed on my plate for lunch. “My father-in-law started this place,” he told me. “But I’ve taken it on. Can’t imagine going back to England now.”
I spent the afternoon paddling a kayak around the bay. Just beyond the reef break, clouds towered in the south. The staff told me they could smell the Kusi rains coming, though they were still weeks away.
At dusk kanga pillows and palm mats were hauled onto the sand. Brass lanterns provided the only light for miles in any direction. Moorehead lent me a handheld telescope that digitally identified constellations. I was delighted to locate Canopus, a navigation star beloved of ancient voyagers, only visible in the Southern Hemisphere; it was impossible to be lost under its bright influence. Conversation died. Rare are the places in the world with so few distractions. Leaving the other guests, I walked to my hut and crawled under the mosquito netting. At last I fell asleep.
When to Go
September through March is the best time to visit Lamu, when high temperatures hover in the nineties and the weather is fairly dry. The rainy season lasts from April to July.
The Manda airstrip is served by daily flights from Nairobi on Air Kenya, SafariLink, and Fly540. Most resorts and villa-rental agencies will arrange transfers from the airstrip to Lamu or other islands. Journeys by Design (212/568-7639; journeysbydesign.com) can customize its private East African safari itineraries to include the Lamu Archipelago, arranging dhow charters, ground transportation, guides, translators, and villa rentals.
Great Value Baitil Aman Guest House An 18th-century residence with eight fan-cooled guest rooms, an inner courtyard, and a rooftop terrace where authentic Swahili dinners are served by lantern light. Shela Village; 254/713-576-669; baitilaman.com; doubles from $180, including breakfast and transfers.
Great Value Banana House Pleasant inn near the waterfront. Choose one of the three top-floor rooms with antique spindle beds and open terraces that catch the breeze off Lamu Channel. Shela Village; 254/721-275-538; bananahouse-lamu.com; doubles from $130.
Kiwayu Safari Lodge Delightfully rustic resort on an isolated beach with 18 thatch bungalows. It takes two hours by launch to get here from the pier on Lamu Island. The resort will arrange transport. 254/723-598-858; kiwayu.com; doubles from $936.
Kizingoni Beach A collection of seven luxury villas on a half-mile beach. Each house is decorated with coastal African fabrics and art. Cooks versed in Swahili dishes prepare all meals. Kizingoni Beach, Lamu Island; 254/733-444-144; kizingonibeach.com; villas from $8,200 for seven nights.
The Majlis A new 25-room resort of coral stone and hand-carved timber with two pools, two bars, a restaurant, and a trove of traditional East African and contemporary art. Manda Island; 254/204-441-164; themajlisresort.com; doubles from $635, including meals.
Peponi Hotel Peponi’s veranda is the watering hole for “Little Europe,” the jet-set crowd that comes here for generous gin and tonics and exceptional spicy prawns with coconut rice. Shela Village; 254/208-023-655; peponi-lamu.com; doubles from $283.
Eat and Drink
Olympic Mama Fatuma’s unpretentious café offers red snapper in tandoori sauce, fantastic lime pickle, and biryani (usually reserved for special occasions in Swahili households). Lamu Town; 254/728-667-692.
Petley’s Inn Convivial rooftop bar with a mix of locals, visitors, and flirty “beach boys.” Lamu Town; 254/724-251-955.
Pontoon Restaurant A floating grill bar moored off Manda Beach with great sunset views. Reachable by its own private launch. 254/727-734-945.
Whispers Café Garden courtyard offering pastries, vegetable samosas, small snacks, and daily seafood specials. Lamu Town; 254/722-611-282.
Aman Best shop on the island for stylish clothing: Kenyan-made leather bags and belts; beaded leather sandals; soft linen slacks. Shela Village; 254/733-455-821.
My Eye Gallery Attractive collection of modern African folk art and abstract paintings. Shela Village; 254/722-702-510.
Sea Suq A small complex with a coffee shop and boutiques carrying African jewelry, clothes, and objets d’art. Shela Village; 254/722-209-490.
Anna Trzebinski Furniture, beaded suede jackets, kikoi robes, and housewares from the Nairobi designer. Shela Village; 254/720-292-024.
Lamu Museum Originally a 19th-century Swahili home, this tidy museum contains rare ceremonial horns, furniture, jewelry, and other artifacts related to the history and culture of the Lamu archipelago. Lamu Old Town; 254/722-943-999.
Tusitiri Dhow Hire this large, traditional-style sailboat with a uniformed crew for day or overnight cruises. Pickups from Lamu Old Town or Shela Village; from $1,600; 254/722-521-740.