Author: SL Lee
Date: 09-27-06 08:21
LAMU: The enchanting adventures of an Island where time has all but stopped.
By George Gopal - Nairobi
Sep 27, 2006, 00:45
For many centuries, the Kenya Coast has been known as the land of pleasure and recreation.
A section of the arresting scenery that is Lamu island.
With a unique type of climate, people and cultural history, it is one of the unrivaled world’s tourist attractions with picturesque coconut palms, mangrove swamps and coral reefs strewn all over the beaches.
From the south coast through Mombasa Island to the further north, visitors encounter enchanting lifetime adventures as they sample the splendor of the Kenyan coastal strip, also known for its exquisite hotels and resorts, including the Serena Beach on the North of Mombasa Island.
On the remote north coast, there is Lamu archipelago, the dreamy island that sits in the warm Indian Ocean off the coast, where time has all but stopped.
Popularly known to the coastal residents as “Lamu tamu”, Swahili word for an alluring Lamu, the island seems to remain in its own time warp and has somehow forgotten to keep up with the rest of the world.
Famed for its narrow winding lanes synonymous with the ancient Arab urban design, and similar to the ones found in Mombasa’s Old Town and Zanzibar’s Stone City, donkeys and dhows comprise the main form of transport here.
The scruffy narrow alley walls are all but part of Lamu’s magical charm, whose Swahili and Muslim culture has remained unchanged for centuries.
Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is characterized by the simplicity of structural forms enriched by features such as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors, with roofs mainly made from makuti (palm leaves) complete with windows that have beautifully carved shutters.
Besides, Lamu doors are famous for their size and intricacy of carving but their grandeur contrasts amusingly with the crumbling walls of the buildings.
The island itself is beautiful and comprises endless beaches where tiny villages nestle among coconut and mango plantations and sailed dhows ply the blue waters.
It is indeed a peaceful tropical island where life is lived at it's own pace and relaxed rhythm, but a place whose history is as mysterious and fascinating as the winding streets of it's medieval stone town, where Lamu’s real attraction is to be found.
Lamu residents are friendly, and would always be willing to take visitors around to see its rich historic sites, including its warlike fort built by the Sultan of Oman in 1810.
From this fort, one can look down on the busy market place trading in fruit, vegetables and large white blocks of coral used for building and decoration.
No wonder it is a strange place to find the US military on active duty, while coexisting and interacting calmly with the residents.
The idyllic scene has put this archipelago on the itineraries of well off tourists and adventurous backpackers. X-Files star Gillian Anderson was married there recently, while Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall is a regular visitor, drawn like many by the islands' relaxed "no news, no shoes" reputation.
Lately, there have also been discoveries of the Island’s strong Chinese links that date back to centuries ago, but which have not been as heavily documented as the Arabs and Portuguese.
Archaeologists are now following up on the clues to a Chinese ship that capsized off the Lamu coast over 600 years ago.
Historical evidence indicates that the Chinese introduced stone buildings, which are still found in the old Shanga town in Lamu, and Chinese porcelain adorns the roofs and walls of houses.
Since the 19th century, the town has hosted major Muslim religious festivals, and is also a significant center for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures.
And towards the end of 2001, Unesco granted Lamu’s Old Town World Heritage status citing the fact that with a rich culture and heritage, it had retained all the charm and characteristic functions for over 1,000 years.
The list features cultural and natural sites whose disappearance would be deemed an irreparable loss to mankind and an irreplaceable source of life and inspiration.
It was hence chosen on the basis of its significance as a unique cultural heritage, coupled with the fact that it is one of the oldest and best-preserved ancient settlements along the East African coastline.
This makes Lamu Old Town, which was gazetted a national monument in June 1986, the first cultural site in Kenya to gain entry into the World Heritage List.
Having escaped the destructive conquest of the Portuguese and a counter-invasion by Omani Arabs in the 17th century, Lamu, later became an important trading centre that boasts a unique blend of Arabic, African, Indian, European influence, which utilize the traditional Swahili techniques to produce its own distinct culture.
It is also famed for having had over 700 years of continuous settlement, in which time its history has thrived for centuries, continuously and uninterrupted.
Such histories are only comparable to places such as Marrakesh in Morocco, Lalibela in Ethiopia and Kano in Nigeria, whose trade and development are attributed to the efforts of indigenous people.
In addition to being a significant regional centre for the study of Islam and Swahili culture, the town has hosted major Muslim religious celebrations such as the annual Maulidi festival, which attracts large numbers of pilgrims from East and Central Africa.
During such festivals, there are a lot of activities and competitions, including dhow sailing, swimming, donkey racing and calligraphy – as well as traditional dances and displays of skills like dhow building and woodcarving, which in itself is a showcase, and at the same time preserve Lamu’s unique culture and heritage.
To visit Lamu is to enter another world. Visitors invariably find themselves becoming a part of this world, where life dramatically slows down, and long days are spent strolling along the waterfront, exploring the town or just relaxing on the quiet, endless beaches.
George Okello Gopal