The Magic of Lamu Island – like a step back in time

Narissa Allibhai is a Kenyan Desi girl backpacking the world! She is all about conscious art, social justice, intentional communities, alternative spirituality & nature-loving, and blogs about all that on Nomad Girl Tales. Also, she’s a sound healer working with the Tibetan singing bowls and Indian bamboo flute, guided by the Earth’s energy. Now let’s leave Narissa and Lamu island to put a spell on you!

We rode on donkeys from the sand dunes of Shela to the heart of the old Swahili town and World Heritage site. The most uncomfortable ride ever! I had a big red sore just below my tailbone the next morning. Giggling, we dismounted and I swore to never ride a donkey again. It was our first time in Lamu, Janine and I, and our first ever backpacking trip together to this hidden gem off the north-eastern coast of our own country, Kenya.

The Magic of Lamu island, Kenya

A sleepy town, with inhabitants baking and melting in the heat of the East African coast. A Muslim people, men dressed in white kanzus and women in black burqas with colorful hijabis, attending the prayers when the Azan call rings out across the island five times a day. An unspoiled culture, preserved for over a millennium. One of the few places in the world with no cars, no roads, no big polluting industry!

The Magic of Lamu island, Kenya
Lamu sea view, by Jamo Mweu

We eagerly climbed onto a small traditional dhow early the next morning for a full day on the crystal blue waters of the Indian ocean. The Arab fishermen driving the boat became our great buddies, and told us how their ancestors had come to settle on this island hundreds of years ago, intermarried with the local Bantu people, and now the island was a beautifully blended mix of cultures famously known as the Swahili people.

The fishermen let us drive the boat, and of course, I crashed it straight into the mangroves, just like that time Janine and I went snowmobiling in Whistler and I crashed it straight into a bush the moment she let me drive. The first one of us to proudly catch a fish was Janine, which became part of our lunch later that day. In the middle of the ocean, of course, I needed to pee, when there was no land or bush around. On the instruction of the fishermen, I hung off the side of the boat half-immersed in the water and did my business, while Janine roared and chuckled and giggled at my discomfort.

The Magic of Lamu island, Kenya
Narissa smiling in front of coral walls, by Jamo Mweu

Lamu island. Land of the donkeys and cats. The sandy streets are narrow, the buildings traditionally built from coral stone and mangrove timber, with the famous beautifully carved doors, and gigantic beds inside the houses. One can easily choose to walk barefoot in such a place! (That being said, beware – I was unlucky enough to get those pesky jigger bugs to burrow into my toe and lay eggs there…). The waters are turquoise, the beaches are unspoiled, and have the added beauty of the sand dunes that you can walk upon. The pace of life is slow, and the people have chilled-out wisdom you can never find in the big commercial cities of stress, rush, money-chasing, pollution, and lack of connection to each other and nature.

The Magic of Lamu island, Kenya
Donkey with a sack, by Jamo Mweu

The origin of the Swahili culture and the Kiswahili language started way back in the 9th century when Arab traders settled along the East African coast, bringing with them the religion of Islam. The lingua franca of East Africa, Kiswahili is one of the most important languages of the African continent. It is a Bantu language (a family of languages from the Niger-Congo origin spoken by around one-third of the African continent), spiced with loanwords from the Arabic language brought in by the traders. Lamu is the most preserved Swahili settlement today, with Zanzibar Stone Town in Tanzania a close second.

Lamu Island was originally a Bantu land, then the Arab traders came to join from around the 9th Century. Lamu remained independent until the Portuguese invaded and took over in the 16th Century. The Omanis helped overthrow the Portuguese and then Lamu came under Omani protection. Once colonial times came around in the 19th century, the British came in to establish the East African Protectorate and co-rule Lamu. It’s crucial to not overlook the ugly history of the slave trade in which Arabs facilitated bringing in slaves from Madagascar via the Lamu Archipelago to Arabia and the Persian Gulf, which only ended when slavery was abolished in East Africa in 1909. When the famous Uganda railroad (the “Lunatic Express”) was built from Lake Victoria in Uganda to Mombasa as the main port in Kenya, Lamu was left isolated. The economy stagnated, and ironically, Lamu’s exclusion from the process of modernization is the reason that its rich culture is so pristinely preserved and admired today.

The Magic of Lamu island, Kenya
Lamu Uber boat, by Jamo Mweu

I’ve been to Lamu four times now – the first was this unforgettable trip with my best friend. Then I dragged my family over to experience the magic of Lamu island. Last year, I was invited to teach at the world-famous international Lamu Yoga Festival. And this year, I was there again – just before the world went on lockdown due to the coronavirus. I can’t keep away from this place that once you’ve tasted, you’ll be hooked too.

There’s something special about Lamu – and it goes even beyond the beauty of the perfect beaches and pure blue waters, beyond the exquisite architecture and the history and culture – it’s the vibe, the energy, the heartbeat of the people. There is nowhere in the world with this Lamu vibe. People are so… how else to describe it but ‘real’. So friendly, so welcoming, that any visitor feels immediately at home. That’s why people have difficulty leaving, there’s something about this place, a feeling, that you just can’t find in most of the rest of the world.

The Magic of Lamu island, Kenya
Narissa happy home in Lamu, by Jamo Mweu

I’ve written before about my history as a descendent of Indian immigrants to Kenya, and how my identity has been a huge struggle my entire life – never fully ‘Kenyan’, yet not ‘Indian’ either. In Lamu, for the first time anywhere in the country of my birth, I feel accepted here. The coast has such a mix of people – the original Bantu people, descendants of the Arab settlers, the Swahili people through generations of inter-marriage until the population became a beautiful blend, Persians, Indians, Europeans – that I never feel in the slightest out of place! Everyone is accepted as they are, as long as they are a good person, and kind to others (as is the case in many value-based Muslim communities).

People in Lamu actually speak to me in Kiswahili, unlike in my hometown Nairobi where my lighter skin implies that I must be spoken to in English (plus some other underlying complicated dynamics). And if my Kiswahili is not as perfect as theirs, given they are a Swahili community, there is no judgment at all for that! I still feel welcomed, accepted, and part of the larger family.

As for you, my friend… Taste the Swahili spices, coconut curries, fresh fish, and sweet dates. Take a traditional dhow ride into the sunset. Walk the palm-ridden dunes and meditate in a shady spot with a view. Swim in the crystalline waters. Admire the huge Swahili doors with intricate carvings and the giant four-posted Lamu beds. But mostly, talk with the people and make friends you will never forget, whom you will carry around in your heart till you inevitably return and meet again.

The Magic of Lamu island, Kenya
Calling the pigeons!

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