It was in October 1980 that a friend and I traveled to Africa on our way to Madagascar for a holiday. We were to connect to Antananarivo, the capital of the Malagasy Republic from Nairobi, Kenya. The huge Boeing 747 sitting on the cindering apron at Yomo Kenyatta Airport was over-booked. It left without us. The next connection to the big island in the Indian Ocean was a week away and we decided to go elsewhere. We bought a tourist guide to Kenya and ended up in Lamu. A tiny island, just barely off the coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean.

I have been back to Lamu many times since. First, for brief periods. As the years progressed, my stays in Lamu became longer and longer. From three days at the end of a vacation elsewhere, to an entire week after a safari, and then finally to Lamu as my sole destination and interest.

What made me go back time after time? I still have not found an exact answer and I feel I will never find a precise explanation. There is a combination of magnets I respond to.

I have traveled many lands and places and have witnessed the end of an era on our globe. In Niger, Mali and Indonesia, color television and scooters were just being made available to the countries' elite, when I first visited there. In Malaysia and the interior of Brazil, electric typewriters were beginning to be introduced in government offices. The interiors of Cameroon began to experiment with concrete and cement. In India and the Himalayan countries, those who could afford it, started to shop in neon supermarkets at the edges of town.

Lamu has not gone without these advances. The boisterous and smelly generator on the south side of town provides pretty reliable electric power, especially if you have surge-protectors. Cement, mixed with sand from the beaches and carried by dhows and ubiquitous donkeys, is now the main building block of all construction activity. You can even rent video cassettes. But somehow, the effects of all these technological advances remain almost invisible. In this town, they remain defer-ential to the overall impression, the prevailing atmosphere that is Lamu.

Then what is that 'sense of Lamu'? What makes it so special, so different and so unlike any other place on earth? I have always had a hard time answering that question with any degree of satisfaction to myself or anyone else. There are some magnets here that pull me back time and again.

When I experience Lamu, my overall feeling is one of awe. When I visit any place on earth, other than where I live, there is a necessary adjustment to time change, climate, customs, monetary system and language. A new destination takes a while to get used to, to get the feel of the place, adjust and feel at home if the place deserves it. Invariably, that happens within a day or a couple of days.

With Lamu that is very different. Every time I have gone back to Lamu in the past decades, I was convinced that since I had been there so many times before, I would slip back into the old pattern without any problem. So far, I have been wrong every time.

It is the humidity; It is the heat; it is the smell of the town; the reek of the tropics; the donkeys and their droppings; the bui-bui's of the women; the kanzu's and kikoi's of the men; the intense brilliance of the midday sky, demanding a nap; the glare of the whitewashed stone houses; the strong winds blowing off the ocean, rustling the strands of the makuti roofs, stripping the stone houses off their lime-whitewash and ruining your CD-player; the Portuguese cannons on the water-front; the absence of cars; the intensity of the gossip; the terror of conformity; the severity of Islam; the nar-rowness of the streets which shades the heat but barely allows two donkeys to pass each other; the stopped-up above-ground water sewage system; the architecture of the galleries and harem rooms; the mix of Arabian, Indian and African tongues and cultures, lovingly called Swahili.

It is the mixture and clash of all of this that repels and attracts at the same time. It amazes me that every time I return here, I need so much time to adjust, so much time to get used again to the ways of Lamu. The ways here are so alien, so foreign, so different. No place has ever done this to me. No other place holds this power of fascination. Only Lamu.




The little that is written on Swahili architecture, concentrates mainly on the grand and the obvious: the palaces, forts and mosques of the Swahili Coast. The houses where traders, merchants and other regular people lived have, until recently, received little or no attention. A closer look at the lay-out of a typical Swahili house will reveal ingenuity in two ways: it eliminates natural obstacles and maximizes the use of favorable conditions. The solutions devised by Lamu architects and builders in constructing their homes are among the things that place these houses in the class of great architecture by any world standard. They are among the key monuments of Islam. A fitting description of the houses of Lamu.


The Swahili Settlements

As is the case anywhere else in the world, town houses do not stand by themselves. So also the Swahili stone houses . They do not stand in a void but form an integral part of the settlements of the Swahili Coast, which stretches from Mogadishu in Somalia, to the present day border between Tanzania and Mozambique.

These Swahili settlements were important trade centers. Trade provided the link to the wealth and sophistication of the Muslim world of Arabia. Trade provided access to foreign culture, and knowledge of things outside Africa, the wisdom of Islam scholars, rugs from Persia, master craftsmanship of Arabia, wood and fabrics from India, porcelain from China. The Swahili Coast was not the epicenter of the world but these trade opportunities exposed the Swahilis to the cosmopolitan influences from the outside world.

It was trade also that allowed Swahilis to travel abroad to experience these alien ways and things for themselves. The desire for travel had a homogenizing effect within the Swahili territories. This cultural harmony is displayed by the conformity to the layout of house-plans throughout the area. The remotest small settlement in southern Somalia and in the south of Tanzania shared not only common language but remarkably similar pots and clothes and even imported ceramics and ways of displaying them. A uniform fashion.

So with all this trade going on in the Swahili harbors, there must have been a multitude of hotels and inns to provide shelter to the merchants as well as warehouses to stow their goods. The Arabs had their caravanserais, store houses. But the Swahilis did not follow Arab culture blindly. Arabic, although widely spoken was mainly the language of the Koran, and always second behind Kiswahili. Swahili culture provided a different solution.

Ibn Battuta, the 14th Century world traveler and one of the first to catalog his travels across the known world, reports that in Mogadishu, then part of the Swahili world, those traders who had acquaintances in town, were invited to sleep in the guest rooms of the town's notables. The host then took it upon himself to store the wares and to retail them.

Those who did not have any friends in town and especially those who were not muslim, were relegated outside the townwalls. This means that after nightfall, all foreign elements are absent from the town streets. After dark the town is safe for the women of the leading families. Even today in Lamu, the higher born women only go out in public after dark.


The Set Up of the Town

Towns are divided into neighborhoods that are named after the members of the clan living there. Later neighborhoods, or mitaa, are settled by goups coming from elsewhere.



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The Exotic Island of Lamu

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