LAMU – A JOURNEY BACK IN TIME …
(Posted 14th October 2016)
(First view of Lamu town from across the water)
For first time visitors to Lamu, an ancient town on Kenya’s coastal strip, it must appear like a trip back in time. There are, apart from the County Commissioner’s official vehicle and a TukTuk ambulance, no cars on the island, just the same as it was during my own first visit in the late 1970’s.
Therefore, thankfully, when walking one does not need to dodge crazy matatus or even crazier boda boda’s though perhaps look out for the traditional ‘mkokotenis’ or push carts and of course the over 3.200 donkeys, which roam the beach and town freely unless they are loaded with goods and merchandise to carry, earning their living.
Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, has its origins traced back to the late 14th century and was as one of the very few such centres inhabited ever since without interruption.
Tourism, alongside fishing, are the two mainstream economic activities on the island, though the craft of building dhows is still practiced, today more relying on repairs of existing vessels than creating news ones from scratch. Other woodcraft too is evident, as seen in the richly ornamented doors of houses, artfully carved and inlaid, or the chests, chairs and Lamu beds which have found their way across the globe.
Lamu though is not a ‘regular’ resort town and mass tourism is definitely not welcome here. Individual travellers are warmly welcome to spend a few days, or weeks or even months on the island, as long as they are respectful of local customs. Barefeet is ok, probably driving every shoe salesman mad, but that is the way it is here. Wrapping a ‘Kikoi’ around oneself too is ok, the locals do it, the expats do it and tourists too may, as long as they learn to tie a good knot and not lose the cloth after a few steps. Formal in Lamu means wearing a ‘Kanzu’ which the island has in common with central Uganda where Buganda menfolk wear it on weekends, even to church and to official functions.
Lamu is the closest Africa probably has to what Bali used to be in the 60’s and 70’s before big tourism there turned everything, what then attracted those in the know of that island, on its head.
Here in Lamu, thankfully, there are no large resorts and while on other islands of the archipelago new resorts were built, as were large private residences, the number of bedrooms were kept small and in line with the character of Lamu, because the locals would not have it any other way.
Lamu, exhibiting presently at the Magical Kenya Tourism Expo in Nairobi, has made a name for itself in recent years with a number of festivals which draw in large crowds, often filling every available room and bed, so anyone thinking of attending next month’s Lamu Cultural Festival would be well advised to book right this instant to avoid disappointment.
My return to Lamu reminded me what special appeal parts of the Kenya coast do hold and ideally one should submerge phones, laptops and alike gadgets at the Manda Island jetty on arrival and only retrieve them when leaving the Lamu archipelago, though it may be tempting to just stay on and forget about the rest of the world for a little longer if not forever.
Few places offer such tranquillity and peace, where tourists are left alone – there are none of the notorious beachboys harassing the wagenis – and where miles of empty beaches invite to take a boat, be dropped off for the day with a picnic hamper, a cool box full of one’s favourite drinks, a sun umbrella and a beach towel, reading a good book while the waves of the Indian Ocean hug the beach between changing tides or just going into a semi trance dreaming the day away.
Lamu is open for business 365 days a year, and one more during leap years. The archipelago can be accessed by air from Wilson Airport Nairobi through scheduled flights with Safarilink, Air Kenya and a few other airlines but also from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport through Jambojet, a Kenya Airways’ subsidiary which flies at least twice a day using a Bombardier Q400NG on the route.
Information about Lamu is available via www.lamutourism.org and a number of related websites or Facebook pages like http://www.kijani-lamu.com/ where I stayed this time, https://www.facebook.com/forodhanihouselamu/, www.diamondbeachvillage.com/, www.peponi-lamu.com/hotel-restaurant-bar, www.themajlisresorts.com/ or else check out the official tourism board link to Lamu via http://www.magicalkenya.com/places-to-visit/coastal-kenya/lamu/
Upcoming festivals in Lamu:
October 31st – November 01st Lamu Fishing Competition
November 10th – November 13th Lamu Cultural Festival
December 05th – December 06th Lamu Triathlon
January 03rd – January 07th Maulid Festival
February 13th – February 14th Lamu Art Festival also featuring the Lamu Hat Contest
March 02nd – March 06th Lamu Yoga Festival
March 27th – March 29th Kite Festival at Kizingoni
April 15th – April 17th Lamu Food Festival
Links to YouTube uploads from my Lamu visit: