Lamu Kenya Guide
The Arab ﬂavour of Lamu Kenya is not nearly as old as the town itself. It derives from the later nineteenth century when the Omanis, and to some extent the Hadhramis from what is now Yemen, held political and cultural way in the town. The first British representatives found themselves among pale-skinned slave-owning Arab rulers. The cultural and racial stereotypes which were subsequently propagated have never completely disappeared.
Lamu Town Climate
The weather in Lamu Kenya is generally hot and humid throughout the year. The long rains come from April to July and the short rains from October to November. The mean daily temperature is around 22 degrees Celsius minimum and 30 degrees Celsius maximum.
Economic Activities in Lamu Town
Fish farming in Kenya and tourism has been the most important economic activity for Lamu. Mangrove export, commerce, traditional maritime activities, traditional woodcarving have provided a stable economic base for the growth of the town. Other economic activities include handicrafts such as making of kofias (traditional embroidery swahili hat), agriculture and carpentry.
History of Lamu Kenya
Lamu was established on its present site in the fourteenth century but there have been people living on the Island for even much longer than that. The fresh water supplies beneath Shela made the Island very attractive to refugees from the mainland and people have been escaping here for 2000 years or more – most recently in the l960s when Somali secessionists and cattle raiders caused havoc. It was also one of the earliest places on the coast to attract settlers from the Persian Gulf. There were probably people from Arabia and southwest Asia living and intermarrying here even before the foundation of Islam.
Lamu Kenya is something of a myth factory – classical as well as popular. Conventionally labeled “an old Arab trading town”, it is actually one of the last viable remnants of the Swahili civilization that was the dominant cultural force all along the coast until the arrival of the British. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lamu’s unique blend of beaches, gently Islamic ambience, funky old town, and population well used to strangers, was a recipe which took over where Marrakesh left off. It acquired a reputation as Kenya’s Kathmandu: the end of the (African) Hippie trail and a stop-over on the way to India.
Lamu town itself is unendingly fascinating to stroll through. with few monuments but hundreds of ancient houses, arresting street scenes and cool comers to sit and rest. And the museum is exceptional, outshining all Kenya’s others but the National Museum in Nairobi.
Initially confusing, Lamu is not the random clutter of houses and alleys it appears. Very few towns in Africa have kept their original town plan so intact (Timbuctoo in West Africa is another) and Lamu‘s history is sufficiently documented, and its architecture well enough preserved, to give you a good idea of how the town developed.
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The division is between the waterfront buildings and the town behind, separated by Usita wa Mui, now Harambee Avenue. Until around I830, this was the waterfront, but thepile of accumulated rubbish in the harbour had become large enough by the time the fort was ﬁnished to consider reclaimingit; gradually, those who could afford to built on it. The fort lost its pre-eminent position and Lamu, from the sea, took on a different aspect, which included Indian styles such as arches, verandas and shuttered windows.
Behind the waterfront, the old town retained a second division between Mkomani district, to the north of the fort, and Langoni to the south. These locations are important as they distinguish the town’s long-established quarter (Mkomani) from the still-expanding district (Langoni)where traditionally newcomers have built their houses, often of mud and thatch rather than stone or modern materials. This north/south division is found in most Swahili towns and reﬂects the importance of Mecca, due north.
Lamu Town Museum
The museum has restored an eighteeth century house (the House Museum) to approximately its original appearance. Lamu‘s stone houses are unique, perfect examples of architecture appropriate to its setting. The basic design is of an open, topless box enclosing a large courtyard, around which are set inward-facing rooms on two or three ﬂoors. These rooms are thus long and narrow, their ceilings supported by close-set timbers or mangrove poles (boriti). Most had exquisite carved doors at one time, though in all but a few dozen homes these have been sold off to pay for upkeep. Manyalso had zidaka, plaster-work niches in the walls to give an illusion of extended space, which are now just as rare. Toilet arrangements are ingenious, with fish in the large water cristems to eat the mosquito larvae. On the top ﬂoor, a makuti roof shades one side. In parts of Lamu these old houses are built so close together you could step across the street from one roof to another.
The private space inside Lamu‘s houses is inseparable and barely distinguishable from the public space outside: the noises of the town – donkeys, mosques, cats – percolate into the interiors, encouraged by the constant ﬂow of air created by the narrow coolness of the dark streets and the heat which accumulates on upper surfaces exposed to the sun. There’s an excellent display of Lamu‘s architecture at the museum in Nairobi.
The one place everyone goes on Lamu is, of course, the beach; Lamu‘s beach is the real thing. Unprotected by a reef, the sea here has some motion to it for once: it is one of the few places on the coast where, at certain times of the year, you can bodysurf. You can either walk down to Shela beach (about an hour) or you can take a motorboat or dhow.