Lamu Island Kenya

Lamu Island/Archipelago

There is something magical in the air on Lamu, and it’s not just the seductive sea breeze. Consisting of six main islands and countless small ones, the archipelago is the unrivalled jewel of Kenyan coast, offering both tourist facilities and unspoiled tropical havens for those who know where to find them. For many people a stay here is the highlight not just of the coast, but of their entire time in Kenya, and a large proportion of visitors are regulars entranced by the whole feel of the place.

Among the archipelago’s many charms are Lamu’s Swahili old town, Shela’s exclusive beach community and the remote shores of Kiwayu Island. All are supported and enlivened by a cast of bizarre characters including a man called Satan, a cat called Smacker and a blind man who can ‘se’ women. At its best, Lamu has the ability to make you feel like you’ve always belonged here, and its small wonder so many people keep coming back.

Lamu Kenya Island Town

Lamu town is the core of everything the archipelago stands for in the hearts and minds of inhabitants and visitors alike, a living throwback to the Swahili culture that once dominated the entire Indian Ocean coast. The winding streets, carved woods and traditional houses are simply captivating.

Few experiences can compare with the wandering the narrow lanes immersed in the sights and sounds of everyday life, from the mysterious rustle of bui bui clad women to the echoing of some unseen donkey’s hooves, all set against the crackle of wind-brown palm trees, the slow bobbing of dhows at sunset, the smell of sea food and the changing textures of a hundred coral and plaster walls. It’s simply a different world, and one you’ll be in no hurry to leave.

Traditionally, Lamu houses had flat roofs that created a private space where women were free to talk and socialize; many have been replaced by shady makuti-covered terraces, which serve the same purpose for the many travelers who cross paths here.

Although there have been concerns about the increasing use of imported materials in building and maintenance work, conservation efforts have largely paid off and surviving examples of the town’s famous carved doors and painted wooden beams are probably safe from plunder.

History of Lamu Kenya

Lamu itself was abit of a late starter; originally, the major power-centers in the archipelago were the Swahili settlements of Takwa, Pate, Faza and siyu (on Pate Island) which date back to the 7th and 8th centuries. In pre-Arab times, the islands were home to Bajun tribe’s people, but that culture vanished almost entirely with the ascendancy of Arabic ideas.

Arab settlers established a busy trading post on Lamu Island at the start of the 16th century, exporting ivory, mangrove poles, tortoise shell and thousands of African slaves, who were whisked away by dhow to Iraq, Oman and the burgeoning Arabic colonies elsewhere on the East African coast.

Initially Lamu was a minor player in the East African power game, dominated by the nearby sultanate of Pate, but it rose to prominence in the 19th century after defeating the forces of Pate’s in a battle at Shela beach. At this time the twin cash cows of ivory and slavery made Lamu a splendidly wealthy place, and most of the fine Swahili houses that survive today were built during this period.

It all came to an end in 1873, when the British forced Sultan Bargash of Zanzibar to close down the slave markets. With the abolition of slavery, the economy of the island went into rapid decline. The city-state was incorporated into the British protectorate from 1890, and became part of Kenya with independence in 1963.

Until it was ’rediscovered’ by travelers in the 1970s, Lamu existed in a state of humble obscurity, escaping the runaway development that happened elsewhere on the coast. Today, only Zanzibar can offer such a feast of Swahili culture and uncorrupted traditional architecture. In 2001 Lamu town was added to UNESCOs list of World Heritage Sites.