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LAMU, A UNIQUE ISLAND OFF KENYA'S NORTHERN COAST
by Ted Cookson
Published in April 2005
The town of Lamu is situated on a 19-km (12-mile)-long island of the same name off the northern coast of Kenya only 100 km (62 miles) south of the Somali border. Because Lamu's traditional way of life is still intact, visitors might well experience a bit of culture shock when arriving in this remote spot by air from modern Nairobi or Mombasa.
Lamu's only vehicle belongs to the district commissioner. Donkeys, of which the island boasts hundreds, are the mainstay of the local transportation system. Lamu is an Islamic community with religious schools teaching Arabic and with several dozen mosques. Typically local women are seen clad in black robes; and they often keep their faces covered in public.
It is impossible for visitors not to be aware of Lamu's deep sense of history. The settlement was known to the Greeks as Azania as early as the second century. Later, from the ninth century, Persian and Arab traders settled there, helping to form a unique Swahili Arab-African religious community, the culture and way of life of which appear to be much the same today.
Originally one of the East African trading ports from which slaves, ivory and rhino horn were exported, the first written mention of Lamu was in the fifteenth century. However, most of the buildings still standing in Lamu's historical core today date only from the eighteenth century. During this period Lamu flourished from the export of ivory, mangrove poles, oil seeds, various grains and both cowrie and tortoise shells. The Lamu dhows which sailed east to Arabia and India returned home with silks, spices and porcelain. Lamu continued to prosper into the nineteenth century under the protection of Oman. It was the sultan of Oman who built Lamu's fort in 1820.
The ending of the slave trade in the 1870's reduced the cheap labor on which Lamu's prosperity had depended. Also, Mombasa and Zanzibar began to grow in importance at about that same time. So toward the end of the nineteenth century Lamu fell into decline. Perhaps because it was isolated from modern technology and materialism during the first half of the twentieth century, Lamu was finally discovered as a tourist destination in the early 1960's.
Today the story of Lamu is to be seen in the old buildings which line its narrow, cool and quiet streets. Lamu's traditional eighteenth century coral stone Swahili courtyard houses are richly decorated inside. The House Museum, restored by the National Museums of Kenya, provides a fine example of intricately-carved wall niches and ceilings. The Lamu Museum, formerly the house of the British district commissioner, is another tourist highlight, providing a good introduction to the town and to the tribes which live opposite Lamu on the Kenya mainland.
Lamu Town faces nearby Manda Island where the air strip is situated. Because most visitors arrive by air, their first view of Lamu is from the water. This is appropriate since Lamu's modern economy is based, aside from tourism and forestry (mangrove pole cutting), on shipping, fishing and boat building.
Two fine 4-star hotels are located in Shela, a suburb which is a 15-minute boat ride or a 45-minute walk away from downtown Lamu. Lesser quality accommodation is available in downtown Lamu itself. Lamu is known for Maulidi, the celebration of the Prophet's birthday. During this week there are religious festivities, feasting and dancing. But during the festival hotel accommodation is at a premium.
While most visitors to Kenya rightly focus on game viewing, unique Lamu, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also well worth a visit.
ABOUT TED COOKSON: Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world! He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club). A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi. Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at: Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301. Fax 2359-1199. E-mail: email@example.com. Web site: www.eptours.com.
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