Lamu archipelago – a different Kenya

Donkeys – the main mode of transport

We had a slow sail from Kilifi to Lamu due to headwinds arriving at midday to the waves of Proud Cat and Tiger Lilly welcoming us to the anchorage. Lamu is an island in the far north of Kenya about 55nm south of the Somali border just a couple miles off the mainland and is the favoured holiday spot for the expat community.  As we arrived on 2nd Jan the place was still in the New Year festival mood and was full of people enjoying their annual break. Due to the piracy issues in the past, cruisers are hesitant to come here – in fact, we were the only boats here.  From the minute we dropped anchor we knew this was a special place – we just didn’t know how special.  A couple of kilometres down from the working port of Lamu is the wealthier town of Shela where there is the old established hotel  Peponis, where everyone gathers for their morning coffee, lunch, sundowners and their dinner- a lively old colonial hotel with more character than Winnie the Pooh.  This place was busy with ex-pats and holidaymakers alike, and became my favourite place to wind away the lazy hours.  Mike from Proud Cat and I went for our daily yoga at the delightfully named ‘Banana’ house and ended up here drinking wonderful strong coffee and mixing with all the locals.  Getting lost in the streets of Shela after our yoga session became the norm – I could never understand how I always got lost but we always found Peponis for a coffee and so began our lazy days in Lamu…

Manda beach with Dhows sailing by

Lamu caters to the tourist trade, albeit mostly from the people who live in Nairobi.  Lamu is the working port and about 2km further down the coast is the delightful village of Shela where most of the holidaymakers were staying.

The crowded streets of Lamu. Donkeys and carts rule here.

We walked into Lamu with Tom & Lilly from Tiger Lilly a few times, which invariably ended up with Tom and Ian visiting hardware shops and looking at half built dhows with Lilly and I stopping for chats and taking photos of the kids and patting the donkeys. Lamu is a very old eclectic town similar to Zanzibar. It is the oldest living town in East Africa and deservedly a UNESCO world heritage site. The town itself is a myriad of very narrow winding streets full of small shops and market stalls.  The houses have very intricate carved front doors and the centre square is dominated by Lamu Fort where men sit around all day. The busiest place in town, the market is just off the square and of course this is where I spent many hours buying whatever produce was on sale that day.  I even found leeks one day!  The two supermarkets here had very little in the way of choice.  No red meat or cheese except old mozzarella. Once I found cheddar and feta – luxury.  The only meat here is chicken and various seafoods – calamari, lobster, snapper, tuna so our diet will be quite limited.  The only transport in the town is donkey and cart, although motor bikes have just been introduced along the waterfront.  These delightful gentle donkeys seem to have a free rein and just wander about untethered, though their lives are hard as they carry everything –  building materials, produce, supplies etc from Lamu to Shela.

Locals watching the world go by
This is how they write up the price of the goats

I had some clothes made while I was here – the cotton and linens are good quality and the prices are fair. They all work on very old singer sewing machines and work incredibly fast.  I spent many days wandering around Lamu. The waterfront is always busy with hawkers, boats coming in and out dropping off their catch and kids running around.  We even managed to find the one and only alcohol shop – the police station! It’s a good way of keeping the predominantly Muslim population free from abstaining and brings on a bit of cash for them.

These boys made this boat is made from plastic bottles, wrapped in old cement sacks.
This lady cuts up spinach and sells it for 13c a bag

One morning we all decided to walk into Manda, the other side of the bay.  There are only a few private houses here and the Majlis- an upmarket hotel. We found a guide who wanted $US60 from us to go across the island- we managed to get it down to US$20 and set off . We found out very early on what he wanted the money for as we stopped at a hut early on where he purchased his weed and chewed on it the whole time.  Bit of a communication error here as the walk actually took over 5 hours and by the time we got back, our guide had disappeared- albeit grinning…

A local girl showing us her best dress!

He took us to a limestone quarry, which was an education in hard labour as they cut these blocks by hand, get paid about 50c a block and of course use donkeys to get the blocks to the new building sites for the new hotels.  These guys work in searing heat with no respite and for such a small income. Our visit was the highlight of their day.

Cutting limestone blocks by hand earning as little as 50c a block

We also visited the Takwa ruins  – similar to the Gede ruins near Watamu. These ruins of a town that was abandoned around the 18th century – possibly due to the water running out.  They believe they date back to around 1500 and they are in pretty good condition.  A very old toothless guide appeared and took us around – he knew his facts and I wonder how many visitors actually visit these ruins. After a couple of hours we started making our way back across the island which somehow seemed a lot further than when we came across – I guess it was hotter now and we had been walking for hours and we were all happy to see the beach and more importantly the bar at the Majlis where we flopped down and had a long cold drink!

Takwa ruins

We spent quite a few evenings at Peponis and one evening we were invited to a book launch at a local house. The book was actually written and photographed by two ladies over the past 40 years and depicted many African traditions, some of which have now been lost to modernisation.

There seemed to be something going on most evenings. On Fridays we went to the weekly movie and pizza night at a beach bar, and we even invited to a 40th birthday party.   Lamu is certainly the party place…

The quaint streets of Shela

Tiger Lilly and us decided to head round to the other side of Manda for a week – the quieter side.  It only consists of a few villas, a few private holiday houses and the small village of Kizingoni.  We spent a lovely week exploring the beach and visiting the villas.  We became locals at the beach bar of one of the cabanas and spent a day with the locals in Kizingoni.

Our local beach bar on Kizingoni
Enjoying the beach life of Kizingoni
She sits in her doorway all day weaving

One day we took the dinghy down to the village where we were promptly surrounded by people wanting to show us around. We were taken to see a lady weaving, she spends all day squatting on the floor weaving mats, bags, hats etc.  She had been doing it for 40 years!! We were taken to the brand new hospital which was in the final stages of decorating before it’s official opening in a few weeks, also Lilly and I wanted to visit the school where we were made really welcome and the kids even sang to us. We were very impressed with the school – the parents have to pay a small amount and the kids attend from 8am to 12pm and from 3pm to 5pm. They were all so well behaved and all speak good English. It’s a privilege to attend school as some parents can’t afford it so they work really hard.

Those eyes!
Lilly and I back in the classroom

We visited the one and only shop and bought some tomatoes and onions – they had a few cans and soaps etc but a very limited choice.  As the village is on the beach on a small island they can’t grow anything in the sand so they rely on the boat to come round every week and bring everything.  We only saw coconuts and a mango tree.

Washing day

Tiger Lilly had to get to Kilifi so as soon as the winds were right they headed south and we headed back round the bay to Shela. We will catch up with them in a couple of weeks but for now we are getting ready for a very exciting event – a visit by our daughters who arrive next week.

One thought on “Lamu archipelago – a different Kenya

  1. Tim Dougall February 4, 2019 / 6:38 pm

    Hi cousin, Tim here. Love the photos they are like something out of National Geographic. Enjoy your travels.


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