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Travel: ‘The Birth of Swahili’ - Lamu Island, Kenya

Travel: ‘The Birth of Swahili’ - Lamu Island, Kenya

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lamu Town is the oldest and best-preserved example of Swahili culture in all of Africa.

Once the epicenter for East African trade, Lamu gained fame through international trade routes. Situated on the northern coast of Kenya, Lamu’s strategic position between the Arabian, Persian and Indian worlds allowed an endless stream of spices, silks and slaves to be traded with Africa. The subsequent mixture of cultures, languages and religions eventually called for a few common strands. The people wanted something to call their own, an ethnicity to identify with. And so, Swahili was born.

Although the days of spices and slavery are long gone, the traditional Swahili lifestyle remains, right down to the only form of island transportation – donkeys (no vehicles on Lamu). Gleaming white buildings, ancient stone pillars, arched verandas, humble mosques and maze-like streets welcome all to Lamu’s acclaimed harbor.

This bustling port is full of devoted fishermen, ‘ass’uming donkeys and pushy “touts” (salesmen). Trying their best to capture my tourist dollars, I easily brushed past the merchants only to be taken aback by the next gauntlet. Dozens of shiny, dark almond eyes stared at me from behind 1- by 3-inch slats. Just as curious about me as I was them, I suddenly felt naked against the Muslim women’s arbitrative stares. Reaching for my scarf, I respectfully covered my bare shoulders and tugged against my questionably short skirt, joking to myself, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

As for accommodation, how about an Arabian-style mansion? Shared with nine other travelers, this lap of luxury was snagged for $7 per person per night. It had four floors of polished marble, Moroccan-style archways, hundreds of Persian pillows, an indoor pool and the crown jewel – a rooftop terrace. Doubling as a bedroom and living area, walls were conveniently left out of the design. Instead, a handful of shiny columns held up an intricate, yet modest, thatched roof. Oversized airy cotton drapes softened the space, and 360-degree views of Lamu completed the elevated masterpiece.

Starting every day at 5 a.m., Islamic prayer calls roused me from slumber. But the hundreds of disgruntled donkeys commencing their own wake-up call, “Hee Haw … Hee Haw,” proved the real alarm clock.

Dressing more moderate than usual, I wore long skirts and used scarves to cover my shoulders – a personal choice, not a mandatory dress code. Hitting the lively, early morning streets, I relished in my favorite daily activity, getting blissfully lost in the ancient streets.

No wider then four feet across with three-story, crackled buildings rising on all sides, it is impossible not to feel like a mouse in a maze – except a big piece of cheddar is not your goal. Finding your hotel, after four previous attempts, is. Not to mention, emerging with a clean sandal. Donkey land mines are everywhere, and the ancient plumbing system, an above-ground, open-faced flow way, tends to attract unsuspecting feet.

Delighting over every unique surface, my eyes danced with intrigue at streets paved in cobbled concrete, doors adorned in rusted copper hardware, traditional Arabic reliefs etched over every archway and, most fascinating of all, the building walls constructed primarily of fossilized coral. Utilizing the most prevalent and accessible resource available, Lamu residents have stacked and mortared pieces of coral together for thousands of years, creating these surprisingly thick and fortified walls.

Along with architecture, the people of Lamu left me respectfully humbled. Reflecting the Islamic heritage, men wore either plaid skirts and white button-up shirts or the more traditional attire, floor length white robes, known as “thobe,” complete with stiff, embroidered oval hats.

Women also practiced conservatism, hidden beneath full-coverage, midnight black “abayas,” embellished with simple trims of glitter and rhinestone. Quiet as shadows in the night, they moved gracefully through the alleyways while men played cards and children danced in the streets.

Then there were the rastas. Emerging from the claustrophobic streets and into the salty sea breezes of the harbor, tradition diminished with each passing Rastafarian – laid-back, slow-going and totally baked! With their Bob Marley T-shirts, long dreadlocks and endless peace and love preaching, rastas are the refreshing liberals amidst a sea of conservatives. Their business attitude is simply “Hakuna Matata” (no worries).

Other island activities involved daily visits to the golden sands of nearby Shela Beach, falling asleep on our veranda beneath a blanket of falling stars and an unforgettable “dhow” trip. Once used by Arabs for ocean exploration, these lanteen-rigged, wooden sailboats are now used primarily for fishing and tourism. The cost for a full-day’s dhow and snorkeling excursion is $10 per person – mainly funding our rasta captain’s need for “green.” Laughing and conversing through glazed eyes, they slowly and methodically raised the sail. Snapping to life, the solo lateen sail bloated against the stout breeze and carried us away from the harbor. Gliding through narrow, mangrove-laden channels, we finally reached the translucent Indian Ocean. There we enjoyed an afternoon of secluded snorkeling, fishing and eating – a delicious beach BBQ of curried fish, saffron rice and exotic fruit.

With sunset upon us, it was time to depart our island oasis. Playing bongos and belting out favorites like, “Don’t worry, Be Happy,” our rasta dhow chased a reddening horizon. And as we neared Lamu harbor, hundreds of dhows silhouetted perfectly against the day’s final ray welcomed us home; or in my case, offered a farewell. Truly unique, distinctly Swahili and 100 percent African!


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