Lamu Island is separated from mainland Kenya by just a narrow channel of water, but in every other respect it is far, far removed from there. Approachable only by plane or boat – there are no roads or cars on the island - Lamu feels unbelievably remote. At the same time, the island is full of echoes from other places for its history is steeped in foreign influences, like Portuguese, Omani and Arabic.
A few small towns and villages are dotted around Lamu, nestled against high sand dunes, tracts of mangrove forest, or long stretches of golden beach. Nature’s wondrous palette is complimented by the brightness life. The seascape is punctuated by the white sails of dhows. The streets are dotted with men in multi-hued kikois or simple jellabiyas/djellabas, women in Bui Buis, kids in school uniforms made from crazy shades of pink, green or yellow fabric, donkeys carrying colourful loads of fruits and vegetables, sand or coral stone.
Daily life remains rooted in tradition. Islam is practiced peacefully, and the day is measured by the five calls of the muezzin to prayer. These are like the base behind all the other sounds that form the music of the island: a harmony of crashing waves and wind rustling through palm trees, mingled with occasional donkey cries, the sweet chatter of birds, and a melody of jambos and salaams sung out by human voices raised in greeting.
The friendliness of Lamu’s inhabitants is irresistible. Within minutes of arriving you are saying hello back to everyone you pass. This warm, easy-going approach is evident all over, even children will stop playing and lead you to your destination if you happen to get ‘lost’ in the sandy, unmarked lanes. Things might happen pole pole – slowly slowly, as the favourite local expression goes – but they always happen with a smile.
At the various festivals and holidays that mark the Lamu calendar, a different energy fills the streets as the locals throw themselves wholeheartedly into cooking, singing, dancing, poetry recital, dhow or donkey racing. Their rich cultural background, and the wish to make the most of the limited opportunities on a small island, has made people in Lamu inventive and resourceful.
The standard of craftsmanship by skilled artisans, from dhow builders to limestone carvers, is outstanding. But here, creativity is not just the prerogative of professional artists, everyone is always ready to have a go - whether joining in a hat-making competition, or finding a clever way to make some business. This enthusiasm for life, together with a gently fatalistic acceptance of every outcome, defines the spirit of Lamu.
Author: Priya Basil