We leave for Lamu from Malindi’s tiny airport, where the two check-in staff are City fans and there’s a guy playing the keyboard to the one boarding gate. Women in burkas with hennaed hands are waiting to get the plane and we file on board the small aircraft which takes 25 minutes to fly north over the long stretch of coast and the blues of the archipelago. It used to be safe to travel overland here – Mali and I got the bus up here through the dry north Kenyan land nine years ago – but now because of threats from Somalia’s al-Shebab we’ve been advised to fly.
When we land we walk out onto the baking tarmac and 100m down the road to the small public boat that will take us over the channel to Lamu island. It’s overcrowded and I’m glad of the lifejacket and that Moz decides to tell me after we get off that there were guys bailing water out the back. As we sail across its hard to take my eyes of Lamu, stretched along the waterfront, a mix of mosques and minarets and rooftops and alleyways. We reach the jetty, fend off the hawkers and walk with confidence in the direction of our hotel only to find we were going in completely the wrong direction when the owner spots Phil, says his name, and takes us the right way.
We’re staying in a big breezy townhouse right on the waterfront with an elaborately carved wooden bed, a balcony and a rooftop overlooking the late afternoon sea. There are carved recesses set into the wall where brass and pottery is displayed and a gentle and welcome breeze moves through our room.
The population of Lamu is, the owner of the hotel tell us, 98% Muslim and there are over 40 mosques in this tiny town. We wake to the 5am call to prayer and hear it as dusk falls, the sound of the muezzin bookending each day. It’s a reassuring and familiar sound.
On our first morning we explore the old town. I have a map in our guidebook but we quickly go off course; it’s hard not to in this rabbit warren town of narrow twisting alleyways. We walk past the workshops where there’s wood shavings blowing out on the street and the sound of hammering; they’re carving the elaborate wooden doorways that you can see on the front of practically every building in town. I stop often and run my fingers over the beautiful curling grooves. We wander through the main square and sit for a while to watch the world, pass the oldest mosque which is now a ruin and browse the covered market. A guy called Patrick walks with us and gives us tit bits of information, then takes us to show us his gallery, a small outside space hung with canvas, where we buy some painted cards to say thank you for the impromptu tour. He points out the gutters which run down through all the alleyways: “if you ever get lost, these are your guides, they all run to the sea”.
Women in full length burkas brush past us, their eyes lined in kohl and their feet in glittery shoes, men in white thobes and prayer hats sit barefoot outside the mosque, little kids run up to give us shy high fives. The streets are so narrow here that the only way to get things from place to place is on the back of donkeys so we’re always having to leap to one side as they clip past carrying baskets of bricks or cement mixture or empty gas tanks. The smell of dung mixes with drains, frying meat, sweet perfume.
One of the main things to do in Lamu is to take a trip on a traditional boat – called a dhow – and we spent our first day shaking off guys trying to sell us a trip. We knew we wanted to go but didn’t want to be ripped off with “mazungu” prices. We meet a guy called Musa who says he has some spaces left and gives us a good deal. So began our dealings with Captain Seafood, as he named himself, who then gave himself the different title the following day of Captain Happy Flower, and who Moz gave the final moniker of Captain Bullshit. It wasn’t that we were screwed over (in fact we got a bargain and really good trip) but the whole process was very complicated, involved a lot of talk about money and how we couldn’t tell the other people on the trip we’d pay less, and when we bumped into him the night before we were going to sail he was pretty pissed.
Our journey began by picking up two nice middle-ages Frenchmen from nearby upmarket Shela and with everyone onboard having a big barney about money and who would earn what, shouting at each other and gesturing wildly slapping their chests. I caught numbers in Swahili being yelled back and forth. The two Frenchmen looked bemused and we lied about how much we’d paid.
When we set sail and successfully left Captain Bullshit behind (presumably to go and harass some other tourists) it was plain sailing. The crew, Mohammad (whose nickname was Captain Promise), another Mohammad and Faquir, were lovely and chilled, and also such strong sailers. When the wind picked up, the dhow flew: its huge white sail, repaired many times, pulling taught and cracking in the wind, the wood bleached by the sun creaking as we sailed and the ropes held tight. Mohammed regaled us with stories of capsizing and we made our way across the channel to Manda island where we dropped anchor. Moz and I had hired snorkels so we swam out into the water which dropped off into the deep. In the shallows the water was clearer and we could see so many fish around the coral, serenely curling around us in schools and disappearing in sudden flitting moments. All I could hear was the sound of my breathing in the mask and I worked hard on not being scared of the depths.
Back on board we sailed up the mangrove channel, tacking a zig-zag left and right and switching sides of the boat as it tilted on its side. Mohammad was cooking in the bottom of the boat and soon after we stopped to eat lunch – coconut rice and stew and barbecued fresh fish. It was all delicious.
We sailed back in the afternoon with the wind behind us and it felt as if the day had flown; it had been just great. The crew had been talking about a big football game that evening in which Captain Promise was playing; Mohammad agreed to take us and he led us through so many winding streets to the football field, chatting to people along the way and introducing us to his daughters.
The football field was enclosed by trees and surrounded by several hundred people – all, I’m pretty sure were guys. The light was falling, donkeys braying and the two local teams were head and head. We clapped for Captain Promise’s team and watched the guys around us relaxing and rolling joints. It felt like a strange contradiction in this devoutly Muslim town (so devout I was careful not to have my shoulders of knees out and where you couldn’t buy a beer even in a restaurant), but it seemed like for so many people living a hard life, scraping a living on being a fisherman, that smoking weed and watching your local team seemed like the release they needed. Often in conversation a tragedy would be passed over – Captain Promise’s Dad drowning and the body never being found, Mohammad’s wife dying a few years ago and leaving their two young daughters – and when we’d offer our condolences, the reply would be along the lines of “it was god’s wish”. I guess if your life is closely linked to good sailing weather or profitable fishing or generous tourists, or to the threat of al-Shebab or the perils of the sea or malaria – then you become resigned to this being a decision made by someone above you.
Mohammed walked us back to the waterfront and said goodbye. Tired, salty and a little burnt we headed back for a shower, the moon big and heavy in the sky.
On our last day in Lamu we walked the half hour along to Sheila, the more exclusive part of the island. The beach was empty and beautiful, strong currents in the sea when Moz went in. No-one bothered us and we read and walked along the shoreline. Afterwards we found a very white-feeling bar for our first drink in five days (probably the longest we’ve gone in about seven months!). We played cards, tried not to listen to the conversations at the other tables and I realised how much I’d missed wine. Around the corner we found a cafe serving fish and calamari and salad and we sat and planned more of our route through Africa, sketching out a plan for the rest of Kenya and the beginning of Uganda.
I’m so happy we went to Lamu; it’s a dreamy, mysterious kind of place and I’m so glad that tourism is returning to the area after it was affected by terrorism and that we were a part of that.
Next stop: inland to the Masai Mara!
Ps. Incase you were wondering, “tamu” is Swahili for “sweet”!