“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.