By: Joseph Roberts
Lamu Town is a small town on Lamu Island, which in turn is a part of the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya. Situated 341 kilometres (212 mi) by road northeast of Mombasa that ends at Mokowe Jetty, from where the sea channel has to be crossed to reach Lamu Island. It is the headquarters of Lamu County and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The town contains the Lamu Fort on the seafront, construction under Fumo Madi ibn Abi Bakr, the sultan of Pate, and was completed after his death in the early 1820s. Lamu is also home to 23 mosques, including the Riyadha Mosque, built in 1900, and a donkey sanctuary.
Lamu Town on Lamu Island is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town, and was one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa. It is believed to have been established in 1370.
The town was first attested in writing by an Arab traveller Abu-al-Mahasini, who met a judge from Lamu visiting Mecca in 1441.
In 1505, the Portuguese invaded Lamu, forcing the king of the town to quickly concede to paying protection money to them. The Portuguese invasion was prompted by the nation’s successful mission to control trade along the coast of the Indian Ocean. For a considerable time, Portugal had a monopoly on shipping along the East African coast and imposed export taxes on pre-existing local channels of commerce. In the 1580s, prompted by Turkish raids, Lamu led a rebellion against the Portuguese. In 1652, Oman assisted Lamu to resist Portuguese control.
Lamu was governed as a republic under a council of elders known as the Yumbe who ruled from a palace in the town; little exists of the palace today other than a ruined plot of land. During this period, Lamu became a center of poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as trade. Many of the buildings of the town were constructed during this period in a distinct classical style. Aside from its thriving arts and crafts trading, Lamu became a literary and scholastic centre.
The town is served by Lamu District Hospital to the south of the main centre, operated by the Ministry of Health. It was established in the 1980s, and is one of the best-equipped hospitals on the Kenyan coast.
The town was founded in the 14th century and it contains many fine examples of Swahili architecture. The old city is inscribed on the World Heritage List as “the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa”.
There are several museums, including the Lamu Museum, home to the island’s ceremonial horn (called siwa); other museums are dedicated to Swahili culture and to the local postal service. Notable buildings in Lamu town include:
Lamu Fort is a fort in the town.Fumo Madi ibn Abi Bakr, the sultan of Pate, started to build the fort on the seafront, to protect members of his unpopular government. He died in 1809, before the first storey of the fort was completed. The fort was completed by the early 1820s.
Habib Salih a Sharif with family connections to the Hadramaut, Yemen, settled on Lamu in the 1880s, and became a highly respected religious teacher. Habib Salih had great success gathering students around him, and in 1900 the Riyadha Mosque was built. He introduced Habshi Maulidi, where his students sang verse passages accompanied by tambourines. After his death in 1935 his sons continued the madrassa, which became one of the most prestigious centres for Islamic studies in East Africa. The Mosque is the centre for the Maulidi Festival, which are held every year during the last week of the month of the Prophet’s birth.
Since the island has no motorised vehicles, transportation and other heavy work is done with the help of donkeys. There are some 3000 donkeys on the island. Dr. Elisabeth Svendsen of The Donkey Sanctuary in England first visited Lamu in 1985. Worried by the conditions for the donkeys, the Sanctuary was opened in 1987. The Sanctuary provides treatment to all donkeys free of charge.
The best museum in town (and the second best in Kenya) is housed in a grand Swahili warehouse on the waterfront. This is as good a gateway as you’ll get into Swahili culture and that of the archipelago in particular…
This preserved 16th-century Swahili house, tucked away to the side of Yumbe Guest House, in a tranquil courtyard with a well, is beautiful. The entry fee for viewing the two sleeping galleries and upstairs kitchen is very hard to justify, though, especially as half the hotels in Lamu are as well preserved.
Lamu is home to the Maulidi Festival, held in January or February, which celebrates Mohammed’s birth. It features a range of activities from “donkey races to dhow-sailing events and swimming competitions”. The Lamu Cultural Festival, a colourful carnival, is usually held in the last week of August, which since 2000 has featured traditional dancing, crafts including kofia embroidery, and dhow races. The Donkey Awards, with prizes given to the finest donkeys, are given in March/April. Women’s music in the town is also of note and they perform the chakacha, a wedding dance. Men perform the hanzua (a sword dance) and wear kanzus.
Lamu Old Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, based on 3 criteria:
- The architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrate the cultural influences that have come together there over several hundred years from Europe, Arabia, and India, utilising traditional Swahili techniques to produce a distinct culture.
- The growth and decline of the seaports on the East African coast and interaction between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Europeans represents a significant cultural and economic phase in the history of the region which finds its most outstanding expression in Lamu Old Town.
- Its paramount trading role and its attraction for scholars and teachers gave Lamu an important religious function in the region, which it maintains to this day.