When in Lamu, ride on a donkey

At Kenya’s oldest inhabited town. Photo: Vijaya Pratap  

Our flight in the tiny Caravan plane from Nairobi to Lamu Archipelago is smooth as silk, as we (the eight passengers) admire the efficient manoeuvring by the two young lady pilots. The air strip at Manda Island receives us with its trademark searing heat. As I get into the speed boat, Abdullah smiles, saying this is the best weather in Lamu.

The islands of the Lamu Archipelago along the coastal East Africa are what remain of a thousand-year-old civilisation that developed between the ninth and nineteenth centuries. Lamu was, for centuries, one of the trading ports from which ivory, rhino horns and slaves were exported.

Our guide Ali, clad in a lungi, receives us at the dock and takes us on a walking tour into Lamu town. It is a no-vehicle town, except for the District Commissioner’s jeep, a garbage van and two ambulances (one for the humans and one for the donkeys). As I see people riding on donkeys, doing their daily chores, I secretly long for a donkey ride. I always enjoyed riding on camels, horses, mules and elephants but never a donkey!

Lamu, the oldest living Swahili town in Kenya, is a designated World Heritage Site. For centuries, it has flourished as a maritime international trading centre. Its architecture is uniquely Swahili, with narrow streets, storeyed buildings, intricately-carved wooden doors and numerous mosques. The best-preserved Swahili settlement in the East African region, Lamu was on the main Arabian trading routes, and as a result, the population is largely Muslim. One can also find traces of Indian culture here, like in the rest of Africa.

We pass the Lamu Museum on the waterfront, next to the town jetty, that was once the Governor’s residence (during British colonial rule). The nineteenth century building with prominent verandahs looks different from the traditional stone houses of Lamu.

As we go past the Donkey Sanctuary, my heart goes out to the two donkeys at the entrance, dignified and deeply meditative, with an air of stoic resignation. Lamu residents are grateful to the 3000-strong donkey population, for their humble service. I imagine Ali on a donkey, when he is not walking the tourists.

Though we enter from a narrow lane, the Swahili House Museum opens into a spacious courtyard with flowering trees and a well. This beautifully restored traditional house reflects the regimented lives of the Swahilis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with separate quarters for men and women, audience halls that allow men to receive guests without infringing on the privacy of their womenfolk. At the entrance, I find a similarity with our Indian homes in the large seat-lined porch raised a few feet above the street, where a tired passerby can rest his feet.

The house is a very private place, its outside walls having only holes for ventilation. Light comes from the open courtyard. The echo chamber, next to the entrance, is designed in such a way that women can reply to visitors without being seen, when their men are away. It is narrow, looks as though meant only for slim women (or, is it a clever way of keeping them slim?). Ali says, “Women wash clothes inside the house and men dry them outside or on the terrace. The outer rooms are meant for children to sleep (beds merely placed in curtained alcoves), for living and dining; mostly, the entire family shares food from a huge plate.” Amidst other antiques, I see 400-year-old ebony chairs and rosewood jewellery boxes.

The master bedroom has prominent wooden pegs next to the bed, from where hang the “kikoi” (worn by men when they go out) and the “kanga” which the couples wear when they go to bed. Apart from its protective and decorative role, the kanga sends a message. A man buys his wife two types of kanga, one with a message “I am in a good mood”, and another saying “I am not up to it.” Pretty simple!

In a culture that prides itself on its extreme politeness and respect, the kanga confronts taboos that can’t be addressed – jealousy, sex, disappointment, luck, love, lies, passion and death. It is the ultimate public billboard for personal feelings. Often exchanged as gifts between women, kangas have the power to strengthen or destroy a relationship, depending on the particularities of meaning and context. That’s because the kanga says everything that can’t be said out loud.

In one of the inner rooms, we find two beds placed in the same room; one for giving birth, and the other a ceremonial deathbed on which deceased family members lie in state, before burial. There are two bathrooms; the decorated one outside for the visitors and the inner, plain one for family use.

The kitchen is upstairs, with the first three steps too steep for toddlers to climb. Here, I find more familiar things from back home, like the coconut scraper, noodle maker, water boiler, mill stone (for grinding wheat or grains), ‘tandoor’ etc.

In the gallery, one wall is completely filled with nearly a hundred small niches. They are for displaying porcelain, manuscripts, wedding materials, copies of the Quran and such treasures. I am told the big niches at the eye level absorb the sounds, conversations and quarrels between the couple. Excellent sound proofing!

The Market Square has a 300-year-old building (once, a district prison), with huge trees in the front, where people meet and conduct business. As we go around town, I see many boutique/souvenir shops, as it is a popular tourist place now. School children pass by swiftly, riding on donkeys. We encounter beautiful Persian cats at every alley; Ali says they were brought to Lamu by the Persian traders.

The overseas merchants of yore had to wait for long periods for a favourable wind, to sail back home. That is when they used to marry local women and make families. Some men would take home the newly acquired wives, but some women were well provided for and left behind. A few men stayed back, contributing to the beautiful confluence of cultures in Lamu today.

Fact File

‘Safarilink’ operates Caravan planes from Nairobi (It takes 1 hr and 45 minutes)

Majlis Resort on Manda Island is just a 10-minute boat ride from the Manda airstrip

Island hopping is possible by efficient speed boats.

Attractions include Beaches, Dhow rides, Kayaking, Snorkelling, etc.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 3:47:06 AM |

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