Sweet Lamu

Islands Magazines – October 2006

Sitting in silky white sand on the deserted island of Manda Toto, I was surrounded by 1,000 colors of blue. The grilled fresh snapper, which I scooped into my mouth with my fingers, had been deftly cleaned by the dreadlocked Abdul over the side of Jah Love, our mahogany dhow, as we sailed the Lamu Archipelago — a chain of seven islands tucked into the Kenyan Coast. On shore, Abdul had crafted a perfectly MacGyver-esque grill from stray sticks. The frizzy-haired Yusef, our captain, tossed cabbage, tomato and carrots in fresh limejuice, olive oil and salt. We washed it down with Kenya’s finest: Tusker Malt Lager. Things, I was certain, could not be better.

Then another dhow anchored and four young lobstermen, in cut-off shorts and faded t-shirts, spilled onto the sand with live catch in hand. It’s good to be wrong sometimes.

I had arrived on Lamu after working for a week in hectic Nairobi. I needed to detach and recharge and heard that Lamu Island was the perfect place to do it. “Visiting Lamu is like going back in time,” A colleague told me. “It’s a different world.”

For two days I wandered the wide beach of Shela, a town built into the rolling sand dunes of Lamu’s southeast coast, and watched schools of evocative hand carved dhows ply the waters. I became drawn to them. Here the dhow appeared to be a mode of transportation, entertainment and commerce all in one. But in Shela, a mecca for fashionable ex-pats and adventurous tourists, I still felt the trappings of the 21st century. Perhaps, I thought, the dhow could be my ticket to timelessness.

I had boarded Jah Love from Shela’s docks that morning, and our all-day journey would wind through the archipelago’s southern half. We would traverse a slalom of globe-circling yachts and local dhows, then round the southern tip of Manda Island and cruise north, through the mangroves of the Mkanda Channel to Manda Toto, a deserted dollop of sand. But our first stop was Lamu town just minutes from Shela.

Yusef and Abdul jumped off to buy supplies. I followed. We dodged shirtless dockhands as they unloaded goats, bamboo and fresh fish from larger cargo dhows. In the laborers’ faces — their light eyes, skin tone and bone structure — was the history of this island. A place where Arabs, Indians, Persians, Portuguese and indigenous Africans melted into an Islamic Swahili stew that has saturated Lamu and the East African coast for centuries. This once-powerful civilization, built on the trade of ivory, spices and slaves, produced its own language, Kiswahili, a seductive, spicy cuisine, and the Lateen sail, which Mediterranean explorers used to sail to the New World. Lamu town, a UNESCO-sponsored treasure trove, represents the best-preserved toehold of this culture. Elsewhere in East Africa, Swahili tradition has been diluted or lost completely through assimilation and migration. All that’s left is the language, which remains among the national tongues of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Beyond the dock we hustled through a maze of dusty, narrow lanes. Just wide enough for donkey carts, they are framed by tall, ancient, crumbling compounds. There are Arabian details – most noticeably the peaked windows and shady laneways, but the building materials are suited to the African environment. Yusef poked at a crumbling edifice. He explained how the use of coral and limestone create porous walls, which facilitate air circulation and keep the buildings cool and dry.

As we continued through town, I noticed that there were no street signs, no cars (locals use donkey carts) and because the buildings are so tall, no perspective. Add to that the mid-morning call to prayer warbling from an unseen mosque, and we did seem to be wandering into another time. Then I saw an unnerving sign of the 21st century: A graffiti artist’s depiction of Osama splashed proudly across a retaining wall.

Thankfully, for every al Qaeda sympathizer in the Lamu islands — and rumor has it that a handful of conspirators are sprinkled about — there must be 1,000 Bob Marley devotee. Abdul and Yusef certainly do their part. Back on board, they took turns rolling what I dubbed “Lake Victorian Cigarettes” (aka, “spliffs”) and singing Marley tunes as we bobbed toward Manda Toto, our lunchtime destination. Still, I couldn’t shake the Osama image. Abdul noticed I was lost in thought. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Mimi ndugu yako. Me, I am your brother.” Such proverbs and catch phrases are an integral part of Swahili culture. They’re used to educate, guide and soothe. Yusef, followed up with a modern interpretation, “Adam! First man in the world! Don’t drink and drive, smoke and fly!”

Right then I had a choice. I could continue to ruminate over Osama. Or I could be present, and connect with Yusef and Abdul. Here, onJah Love, I was perfectly safe. Besides isn’t cultural exchange a path to peace? I inhaled in the name of world unity.

As we left the channel, the wind picked up, and so did dhow traffic. In a corner of the world where there are few cars, dhows are the preferred modus transportus. We passed scores of these wind-powered machines that the Arab, Persian and Indian traders had sailed here as early as the second century. Commerce to this East African island accelerated after Islam took hold in the 14thcentury, when Lamu’s first mosque was built. Over time, some sailors stayed, cultures and customs were fused and Swahili life – with its Arabian tinged architecture and Indian accented cuisine — bloomed.

Modern dhows still ferry people and cargo. Several flew the Rastafarian flag — those were the ones piloted by Swahili Rastas who shouted their respects to Jah Love. By all accounts, there are no practicing Rastafarians in the archipelago. Theirs is a symbolic embrace of the dreadlocked, One Love spirit that Marley made famous. Such seamless integration is what makes the Swahili culture so mysterious, and vulnerable – yet easy to feel. “Who feel it, know it,” reasoned Yusef, our stoned sage as we passed an anchored dhow and watched free divers disappear beneath the surface. “Lobster divers from Pate,” he explained. “A small island. Just fishing villages and palm trees.”

An hour later we were having lunch with the divers on Manda Toto. The grilled lobster was obscenely sweet, but the diving can be hazardous. For generations, the toughest Pate men have learned to free-dive more than 80 feet for their catch without masks. Their only tool is superhuman breath control. “Sometimes we see sharks,” said Samia, 24. But even if a shark spears a diver, which happens a few times each year, the men will go back to the same spot the very next day. “If there are lobster, we must dive.” I can’t decide if Samia is driven by desperate economic necessity or a primordial lust for the hunt. After all, his physique, his very genes have been sculpted and distilled by the ocean. Yusef’s diagnosis: “He’s crazy.”

After lunch Abdul and Yusef performed back flips off Jah Love’s bow. I donned a mask and snorkel. I dove down and wormed through impressive coral gardens, soared over enormous black sea urchins sunk into crevices, and lingered on bulging, lavender starfish, schools of angel fish and fields of giant clams. Thankfully, I saw no sharks.

On the way back to Shela, Yusef pointed out rudimentary fish traps in the Mkanda Channel — the same type used by local fishermen for centuries, and a high-dollar, compound, owned by the Prince of Hanover, on the Lamu Coast. Jah Love’s triangular sail stretched full. The only sound was her hull carving the sea.

Yusef docked just in time for sunset. I eschewed a tasty sundowner at Peponi, Lamu’s choice resort and my hotel to explore Shela’s sand dunes. Sprinkled throughout were old ruins. Were they remnants of the lost city of Hadibu, an Arab settlement, which according to local legend, was buried beneath Shela’s dunes? Or from 17th century buildings destroyed in a war between Lamu and their neighboring islands, Manda and Pate? To me they just seemed like lost memories around which life happens. I passed bearded men in flowing robes who strolled to the sun-bleached, waterfront mosque alongside deeply beautiful, mocha-skinned women, hair wrapped in colorful scarves, just as they have for generations. The sweet, smoky scent of Swahili curry was in the air. Children played soccer in sandswept courtyards. Chickens, goats and donkeys roamed freely. I wound my way past a whitewashed school and ditched the concrete path to climb the dunes. I muddled through shin-deep sand to Shela’s apex, an approximately 500-foot tall dune crowned with an acacia tree.

From here Shela’s buildings seem to rise out of the rolling dunes then melt into sand. The buzz of Lamu Town, two miles down the coast, was audible. I took a step toward the sea below. Then another. Suddenly I was in the midst of a sand-slide that propelled me toward the ocean. I dove in, breathless, and as I came up for air I saw Yusef, standing on Jah Love’s stern. He laughed and shouted his parting proverb, “Lamu damu! Lamu’s sweet!”