x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Lamu: out of Africa

Cover In the picturesque archipelago of Lamu off Kenya's coast, Susan Hack encounters a culture and lifestyle almost unchanged since the rule of the Omani empire.

In the picturesque archipelago of Lamu off Kenya's coast, Susan Hack encounters a culture and lifestyle almost unchanged since the rule of the Omani empire.

It has taken 90 minutes to fly to Lamu from the Kenyan capital of -Nairobi, but the few kilometres by tidal channel to the dhow-building village of Matondoni take twice that long under lateen sail. I'm a passenger aboard the dhow Zeitoun, whose 30-year-old captain, Shee Bakar, mans the tiller. He calls out to his crew hand, also named Shee, to tauten the triangular canvas, hung from a long sloping pole fixed by a pulley to a shorter mast. Shee Number Two, a dreadlocked 20-year-old, grins from his perch at the end of a narrow beam cantilevered against the dhow's exposed inner ribs; he is the sail trimmer, counterweight and, when necessary, the bailer. Painted on the prow is the slogan: "Different colours, one people". On the beam another reads: "Relax". An archipelago of seven mangrove-covered islands off the northern Kenyan coast, Lamu lives at a slower pace than the rest of the world, and still looks much as it did some 200 years ago when it was part of an Omani protectorate stretching from Mozambique to Somalia. Lamu Town, the main port on the largest island (also called Lamu), dates back to the 13th century and remains a maze of alleys surrounding multi-storied courtyard houses inhabited by descendants of foreign merchants who came from as far away as the Arabian Gulf, India, Persia, Portugal, and even Ming Dynasty China. The Swahili language, whose name derives from the Arabic word sahil, meaning coast, developed from centuries of contact, including intermarriage, between Bantu tribes and outsiders who sailed to Africa and back on the seasonal monsoon. Today, Lamu's Swahili heritage and laid-back seaside lifestyle - there are fewer than 10 cars in the entire 6,060 sq km archipelago, and just about everyone uses dhows and donkeys for transportation - is attracting a new wave of foreigners, including celebrities, fashion designers and socialites, Princess Caroline of Monaco among them. Encouraged by Lamu's 2001 listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and wishing to avoid the mass-market tourism that is enveloping Tanzania's Swahili enclave of Zanzibar, these people are buying and restoring old houses and creating Lamu's reputation as East Africa's combination of Marrakech and St Barts. I've come to island-hop, relying on local guides to help me navigate not just the mangrove-lined channels, aqua waters and white-sand beaches, but Lamu's multicultural past and future. The jet-setters have yet to colonise Matondoni, Captain Shee's home village, one of a handful on Lamu island, where at low tide we disembark on to a grey mudflat where translucent baby crabs are feeding on insects and dhow builders are repairing their boats. Matondoni does not have electricity. Instead of power tools the dhow builders use handsaws to shape mangrove poles into boat ribs, and wooden bow drills to make holes for the handmade nails or pieces of rope that attach curved planks to keel, stern and prow; everything is caulked with raw cotton and waterproofed with shark liver oil. The various hull shapes, specialised for fishing or transporting goods and people between small coastal communities scattered among the low-lying islets, look familiar to anyone who has travelled in the Arabian Gulf, and the uteppe, a small dhow with a long camel-necked prow, looks remarkably like vessels I've seen sailing the outer reaches of Oman's Musandam Peninsula. Wading near the shore, men are using hand lines to fish for snapper while keeping an eye out for the stinging leopard rays that like to forage among the sea grass at low tide. Captain Shee buys some fish to bring to his sister's thatched house for our lunch. While the women of the family grate coconut and prepare the meal, Shee introduces me to his neighbours, who still make their roofing, bedding, rope and storage baskets from palm fronds and coconut fibre. Nairobi talk shows and football matches broadcast on battery-powered FM radios have only recently become the backdrop to this impressively self-sufficient lifestyle. "Imagine," says Shee, "we are Kenyan citizens so isolated that we never saw or heard anything about the rest of the country until television and FM radio arrived three years ago." Our lunch of rice cooked in fresh coconut milk, subtly curried fish, and a delicious side dish of potatoes, cabbage and red peppers stewed with spices and the rich first squeezing of freshly grated coconut pulp is one of the most delicious meals I've had in years. And although Matondoni has no running water, I experience no repercussions. Skinny orange cats, descendants of sailors' rat catchers, wander in and out of the house, mewling for scraps. At the end of the day, Shee drops me back at the pier in Shela, the village at the north-eastern end of Lamu Island where Shela Bahari, my seaside guesthouse, is located. The five rooms are arranged around a courtyard and have four-poster beds whose intricate spindles are hung with mosquito netting. The upstairs dining area has stucco plaster walls carved with starbursts and set with arched niches displaying porcelain dishes and other family heirlooms. A 20-minute walk leads to a deserted 13km-long beach flanked by rolling, scrub-covered dunes. In 1812, Shela was the site of a naval battle between the ruler of Pate Island, who was allied with the Omani Mazrui clan that controlled Mombasa, and the rulers of Lamu, aligned with Seyyid Said, then Sultan of Muscat and Oman. The third ruler of the Busaidi dynasty that had evicted the Portuguese from both East African and the Arabian Gulf coasts, Seyyid Said helped Lamu defeat Pate at the price of Lamu's autonomy. The Sultan extended his control over all the once-independent Swahili city states and relocated his capital to Zanzibar, the base for a trading empire based on the export of cloves, ivory, mangrove poles and slaves. The Sultan's Baluchi soldiers built Lamu Town's fortress, whose round turrets and crenellations look remarkably like the great fort of Nizwa in Oman.

Cut off from Lamu Town by three kilometres of seawalk (submerged at high tide), Shela is now the favourite Lamu outpost for wealthy visitors who take yoga classes at Fatuma's Tower, a collection of Swahili tower houses owned by a Frenchman and converted into a hotel. Behind the restored and whitewashed Friday Mosque stands the ruin of a 200-year-old women's mosque, its delicate prayer niches carved from coral and lime, now crumbling and covered with lichen. Between calls to prayer I hear workmen hammering as they transform old family houses into holiday mansions, some of which carry US$1 million (Dh3.7 million) price tags. At the Peponi Hotel, the site of Shela's only bar, I join a crowd of foreigners who have adopted the Shela style of rumpled cotton shirts, shorts and sandals for men and Indian tunic tops, kikoi skirts and ethnic jewellery for women. Local beach "boys" with names like Mohammed Dude troll the beach in front of the hotel, hoping to entice clients aboard sunset cruises or snorkelling trips on dhows with names such as Rihanna and Beyoncé. It was on this same strip of sand one New Year's Day that Prince Ernst of Hanover (Mr Caroline of Monaco) reportedly slapped the German owner of the disco facing the couple's Shela holiday home from across the channel on Manda Island. "This is for the lights, and this is for the loud music," Ernst is reported to have shouted before delivering a blow to each cheek. Though perhaps not as historic as the Battle of Shela, the confrontation resulted in a still-open court case and attracted battalions of paparazzi to Lamu's shores. I've signed up for another dhow cruise, this time to Takwa, a ruined 14th-century Omani town on Manda Island. But the next morning the tide is too low for dhows to enter the Manda channel. I'm dropped instead at The Majlis, site of the former disco, reopened last December as a collection of luxury guesthouses furnished with African and Asian art and antiques. In addition to an Italian chef and one of the archipelago's four licensed bars, the resort has Lamu's sole fleet of mountain bikes.

From the back of the resort I pedal down a rocky path cut by coral quarry workers through Manda's mangrove and baobab-studded expanse. An hour's bumpy riding brings me to Takwa, where sand streets are laid out between lines of coral rag; rounds of brain coral were set into the ground for worshippers to wipe their feet before entering the still-standing grand mosque. The city had four main gates and houses made of coral blocks set in lime produced by burning coral, earth and sand over mangrove firewood. A sheikh's tomb with a six-metre-tall pillar is carved with salutations to Allah and the first four caliphs and bears the Arabic date 1094 (corresponding to the year 1693AD in the Gregorian calendar). On a wall nearby we find old graffiti including carved images of sailing ships and Omani-style khanjar (daggers).

Residents abandoned Takwa and resettled in Shela towards the end of the 17th century, probably because the wells turned saline after over-extraction. The same threat faces Lamu Island today. Demand for water is growing due to an influx of job seekers from other parts of Kenya, which has boosted the district's population to more than 20,000. Meanwhile, World Heritage Status has brought unforeseen consequences because local landowners are finding it hard to resist selling dune plots to wealthy foreigners. The dunes catch and store rain, the source of Lamu's drinking water.

"In the past, you could buy a house for 400,000 Kenya shillings [Dh19,200] but now people are willing to pay 25 million shillings [Dh1.2m] for just a small plot," says the Lamu councillor Omar MacKenzie, who meets me the next day at the Lamu Museum. "In the future, what will the poor drink? Kenyan law permits foreigners to buy freehold property when perhaps it would be better for Lamu families to sell only lease rights, so that local people remain the stakeholders and legal guardians of their resources." Unlike Shela, Lamu Town is not whitewashed or glamorous. There are about 500 houses dating to the 18th century, some of which have been converted into holiday homes, small hotels, coffee houses, museums and galleries. But labourers from other parts of Kenya make up 75 per cent of the population and live in shanty towns on the outskirts of the old city. Walking along the seafront and through the alleys of the historic town core, I see walls peeling from annual cycles of rains and blazing heat. Everywhere the ground is littered with donkey droppings, while grey washing water from houses runs in rivulets down to the sea. "So dirty," sniff a French couple staying at The Majlis. "We like our hotel, but Lamu Town is not at all what we expected." As for me, I'm happy about the things I don't see - evidence of crime, billboards for global products, cars, petrol stations and crowds. -Modernity has arrived in the form of satellite television dishes atop roofs, outboard motors on dhows and motorbikes parked by the public dock. Yet in the town square men sit on stone ledges under a huge rubber tree passing the day in an age-old pastime: chatting. Shops shutter and the central market closes for the midday prayers. As in Arab medina towns, the residents disappear into thick-walled houses with high-beamed ceilings and small windows that shelter inhabitants from the sun while ensuring the home is cool and secluded. Each house has a daka, a Swahili external sitting room with stone benches where male guests can chat. Passages connecting two houses above an alley allow women to meet without needing to enter the street. I have an appointment to meet Said "Gabriel" Suleiman, a former local football star who now owns an eco-tourism travel agency. "Lamu is far more than an exotic little town," he tells me at the Seafront Cafe over a lunch of fresh tamarind juice and garlic "monster" crabs from the mangroves. "Lamu is the centre and last surviving example of authentic Swahili culture. The buildings are not just structures to visit; Swahili architecture is something you feel." He is concerned about the future, about the exodus of locals headed for university and jobs outside the archipelago, and about the marginalisation of those who remain behind without skills. He is also concerned about the new development projects - including a Qatar-proposed plantation and a Chinese government plan to develop a major shipping port deeper than the one in Mombasa - that could transform the Lamu archipelago into an East-African Dubai. I wander through the Lamu Museum, looking at wooden doors carved locally in the Omani and Indian styles, silver jewellery and old Lamu kitchen utensils, including wooden vermicelli presses - a culinary relic from China. The pièce de résistance is the Siwa of Pate, an enormous ceremonial horn, carved in the 17th century from a single elephant tusk. It bears a Swahili inscription still appropriate for today's travel methods of dhows and donkeys: "How often have you taxed yourself with journeying before sunrise and in the twilight travelling by land and by sea?" It's time for me to heed the islands' call to relax and to savour Lamu's pleasures. I head for the beach, enjoying the sun, reflecting that if Lamu's history has been one of invasion, it has also been one of change, tolerance and adaptation. travel@thenational.ae