Having heard much about the island of Lamu, I decided to take a week off and check it out. I knew it was on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and it was the place in Kenya to experience traditional Swahili culture. I didn’t know that getting there by bus was not the best way to travel! Lamu is fairly remote, and most tourists opt to fly in and out.
The journey involved an overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa (not as straightforward as it sounds, but another story completely), a seven-hour bus ride with the girl next to me curled up with her head in my lap asleep, and finally an overloaded boat to the island.
But arriving on Lamu was like entering another world: from the bumpy dusty road to an architecturally beautiful haven. My accommodation was a cheap guest house with a lovely rooftop terrace where I could relax if I tired of exploring.
My first goal was to fill up on the historic sites including Lamu Museum and Swahili House, giving me excellent insight into traditional Swahili culture. As I wandered about the Old Town, I marvelled at the narrow laneways, intricate carved wood doors, and traditional houses. There are no cars in Lamu; if you need to go further than walking distance or carry a load, you travel by donkey. This makes walking a pleasure…. unless you get too close to a grumpy donkey!
My favourite thing when travelling is to watch life happen; Lamu Fort provided the perfect place. Looking out over the central square from the fort afforded views of market sellers and chess players. The fort has views in all directions, so I could see houses all around, with people coming in and out, children visiting their friends and playing in the laneways.
The real beauty however, I found at the waterfront. Fishing has long been the primary industry of Lamu, and it continues to be an important part of life here. I watched as the fisherman hauled in their catch, made and mended their nets, and repaired their boats. The dhows (wooden sailing boats) they use are the same design as years past, and fathers teach their sons the skills of boat building, net making and fishing. And so life continues as ever before in this remote paradise.
Lamu is a haven, so serene compared to mainland Kenya. I learnt there are many ways to experience Swahili culture, apart from the museum. For example one man invites people to his home for a dinner of traditional dishes, there are sunset dhow cruises, or just soak up the atmosphere in the Old Town.