Trip to Lamu — Home to the Oldest Swahili Town in East Africa

View of Shella, Lamu Island

Lamu is an island on the south-eastern coast of Kenya, home to Lamu Old town, the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. This town has maintained its architecture and culture for over 700 years, with major influences from the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Europeans. The town has no motorable roads and no cars. How do goods get into the town? Why are there no motorable roads and cars? How would such an old town look and feel like? These were the questions running through my mind at 12 pm, Thursday 18th March 2021 as I scanned my bag to ensure everything was in place. The road was unusually clear in Nairobi, so by 1 pm, I was walking into the reception at Wilson Airport for a flight at 2:10 pm.

“Do you work here?” the lady at the Scanner asked. “No, I am here for the flight at 2:10 pm.” “You are too early,” she grinned. I am glad I was early because I had to walk about 600 meters to the Airline’s office to get a boarding pass. In a few minutes, I was back at the reception holding my Kenyan Alien ID and the boarding pass on a fast-moving check-in line.

“Where is your passport?” the Check-in Officer asked. “I didn’t bring it, do I need my passport to fly within Kenya? Isn’t the Alien ID enough?” I asked nervously. “Yes, foreigners need their passport to fly even within Kenya.” “ God, this is the beginning of my troubles,” my mind went into distress mood. I called a friend who flew the previous day and he confirmed that he used his Alien ID with the same airline. I went back to the reception feeling my temperature starting to rise.

“This thing might be fake”, the Check-In Officer said pointing at the Alien ID. I was infuriated. “What do you mean by this thing might be fake? Am I in charge of checking the validity of an ID issued by your government?”. I then called a friend who was still at the Airline’s office to help resolve the tension. He pulled up the Airline’s website which clearly indicated that any government-issued ID is valid for internal flights. I began to wonder if this was the beginning of a crappy trip.

We took off at 2:15 pm and in an hour and a half, we were at Malindi — a coastal town south of Lamu. In another 30 minutes, we descended below the clouds to an extensive forest stretching from my window to infinity. At the southern end of the forest, we descended to the Manda airstrip. Fresh oxygen-rich air blew across the airstrip as we left the plane into a place that felt like a million miles from any settlement.

About 400 meters of walking, we were at the sea and Lamu Island was on the other side. Down a few steps, we jumped into a boat that had been waiting. The Boat was decorated with colourful Swahili prints and was one of the “taxis” of Lamu Island.

“That is Lamu town”, a friend pointed across the water as we rode slowly past it. “That is Lamu town? so, where are we going to? I thought we were going to Lamu town.” I asked. “We are going to Shella, it is a small touristy town just outside Lamu town” she replied. As we rode in, I could see, in the distance, a building in the middle of the sea. “Wait, was that built in the middle of the water?”, I asked loudly. “No, It’s a floating bar”, she replied. “Floating bar?”, I giggled with awe. As we rode closer, I could see car tires hanging around the building, and circular metallic drums under the building helping it float. “I am definitely going to come back and have a floating bar experience”.

Floating bar-Lamu Island

Past the floating bar, a small town came into view from the distance with stunning white-painted buildings — huge windows and doors with arch decorations; roofs thatched with grass on one side and concrete-decked on the other side for observation. Riding closer, It became clear how close the buildings were to each other. I couldn’t see any roads between buildings or any major streets.

A few steps up and we were at Shella. There were small spaces between the buildings forming the streets used to get to anywhere in the town. We meandered around buildings, always seeming to come to the end of an unending road. We got to our lodging and I was sure I couldn’t trace my way back to the sea. On the upper floors of the building, there were trees with bright flowers creeping on the Ledge and the roof. “How did these trees get up here?”, I pondered. These are trees that can creep long distances with very short roots, planted on every floor of the building in soil containers. It was mind-blowing how far these trees could creep with short roots.

Creeping plants on the roof

We dropped our bags and took off to another building where half of the group settled. We quickly climbed to the observation deck on the roof as this was a taller building. The first remarkable view was the bright flowers of the creeping plants on the grass-thatched roofs of shorter buildings. Straight ahead was the breathtaking view of the sea with a warm breeze almost ripping my clothes off. On the far end of the sea were trees with long skinny roots rising above the swampy water like legs of a Praying Mantis. Behind were other taller buildings with the grass-thatched roofs and their observation decks. My mind went silent for a while, resounding “waoh!, waoh!” at the overwhelming view. At sunset, I witnessed what I had only seen in Pirate movies. A fleet of sailboats graced the sea moving slowly with the breeze of the sea. These are called Dhows with their sailor called the captain of the Dhow. I spent the night on the roof.

The next morning, we took a boat heading to Lamu town. ”Lamu town, this is a town, it should have some motorable roads and some cars”, I couldn’t get rid of the thought. At the Entrance of the city, houses with huge doors and windows clogged together. People and donkeys moved along the streets just like in the cities of ancient Rome. Along the tiny streets were stupendous amounts of clothing with stunning Swahili markings. Craft was made from anything craftable — wood, seeds, barks of trees, leather, and much more. Tailors made clothes in real-time, resewing clothes to fit specific demands.

Typical streets in Lamu Town

“Njia, njia, njia!” sounds coming from behind as an indication to give way for a herd of donkeys coming through with goods. Each time, we stepped aside to give them the road. They carried goods from the sea supplying the homes, shops, and markets in the town. The only power-driven vehicles we met were a few motorcycles and tuk-tuks.

We headed for the floating bar after the Lamu town experience. “Will this bar swing a lot? Will it feel different from a fixed house?”, Thoughts running through my mind as we exited the boat into the floating bar.

Everything was wood, the floor, the pillars, the seats, the bar stand, and the walls. Hollow metallic drums attached to the wooden floor helped the bar to float. We sat at the edge of the floor and dipped our legs into the water, where we could see tiny colourful fish swerving in the water. Far ahead was a view of Lamu town, while to the east was the Mangrove forest with hilarious roots.

“Will you want to go kayaking tomorrow into the Mangroves?”, a friend asked in the evening. “Man, I don’t know what that is?”. I replied. “We will take small Canoes and paddle into the Mangroves”. It sounded exciting, so I accepted.

The next morning, we grabbed a boat and went to rent some Kayaks. They turned out to be small Canoes fitting one or two people, with the paddles used to propel them in the water. We boated for about a kilometer into the Mangroves and started setting up the kayaks. “I’ll just get into this thing, push the water with the paddle and be on the move”, I thought it was that simple. The first challenge was to get in, the kayak almost toppled over, but hurray, I made it in. I started executing my badass kayak moves and to my dismay, I kept going in circles. After about 10 minutes of going in circles, I figured out my own way of controlling the direction. “If you find yourself going to the left, apply some brakes to the right and the direction will adjust,” that worked. I tried that for the next 15 minutes and I started enjoying the ride. We got close to the Mangroves to have a better view of the roots. We rode for two hours and went back to Shella.

In the evening, we went out for a Dhow sail. A dozen people in the Dhow, we headed for the mangroves. The engine ran for a short time to get the dhow moving and was turned off, the wind did the rest. Positioning the sail determines the direction of motion of the Dhow. As we moved into the mangroves, the silence became more and more intense. I couldn’t hear the sound of birds chirping or engines revving. We joined with dozens of Dhows moving in the water, just like a well-organized swamp of doves in a slow-motioned flight. Every Dhow had a unique label. “Happy Birthday”, “Happy anniversary”.

Sunset from the Dhow

The next morning, we went back to Lamu to get some souvenirs. I got a wooden painting of the Lamu symbol for luck — now handing on my wall as a reminder of the beauty and quiet times spent in Lamu.

Lamu symbol for luck

Into a boat, we headed for the airport. Same flight agency, same route, and we were back in Nairobi in two hours.

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Software Engineer, aspiring Writer and Entrepreneur.

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Clasence Neba Shu

Clasence Neba Shu

Software Engineer, aspiring Writer and Entrepreneur.

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