Me: Now I’m gonna talk to a donkey.
A Donkey: …
Me: Hi donkey! What’s going on?
AD: … …
Me: You’re a donkey I like that.
AD: … … …
Me: O.K. talk to you later donkey. Now say hi to your mother for me alright.
AD: *walks away*
Mentally repeat over and over again for three days and then End Scene.
There really isn’t another place in the world like the island of Lamu. Originally established around the 14th century, Lamu is the oldest continually inhabited town in Kenya and the oldest Swahili settlement along the coast of East Africa. For those of you who don’t know about the concept of ‘Swahili,’ don’t worry I’ve been asking people for weeks and I still hardly understand it. I mean it’s a Bantu language with Arabic origins, to be sure, but it’s also a people, a region, and a culture. I previously knew it only as Tupac Shakur’s language of choice to translate a certain string of obscenity-laden threats on the track “Troublesome ’96.” Apparently it required a very loose translation. But whatever it is, Lamu is certainly rich with it.
Annnyway, Lamu is the definitive Swahili town. The old part of Lamu town is such a well preserved representation of Swahili tradition that UNESCO designated it a world heritage site. The town lie under Portuguese control early on, before coming under Omani, Zanzibari, German, and finally British rule prior to independence in 1963. Traces of all these influences remain present in the island’s unique architecture and culture. A tour through the winding narrow streets of old town reveals awesome coral stone walls and roofs of mangrove timber. Homes also retain traditional inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborated carved wooden doors that sometimes date back centuries. If you choose to hire a guide (which I highly advise) you will be introduced to all of these features and also meet roughly a thousand people who are happy to chat with you and share in their culture.
The island is home to some 30,000 people and 2,000 donkeys, plus or minutes a few thousand for each depending on which friendly resident randomly offers these unsolicited statistics to you. There is but a single vehicle on the whole island so public transportation occurs either on land by donkey or up and down the shore by traditional single-sail dhow sailboat. The donkeys are revered on the island and very lovingly tended to. There’s even a donkey sanctuary. Still there’s something super weird about hearing the quiet click-clack of small hooves coming from behind and then seeing an African pass by you riding on a donkey.
Geographically the island can be found 250km North of Mombasa and has historically been reachable by taking a two hour matatu ride up to Malindi and then taking a very quick flight to Manda island directly across from Lamu. You can also take a bus all the way up from Mombasa, but it takes a good 9 hours and comes with its own police escort. Why a police escort you ask?? Because of the Somalia based Al-Shabab terror group of course. To my stateside homies who may not read so much world news, they are the group responsible for the restaurant bombing in Uganda that killed 76 people during the World Cup Final (I actually visited this restaurant last year because Chris Scodeller has a sick mind.) They were also responsible for the horrific 80-hour Westgate Mall Siege that systematically took the lives of 67 non-Muslim Kenyans in Nairobi in 2013, and for good measure they just killed an American soldier in Somalia yesterday.
As it turns out the Northern border of Kenya is a bit of a sieve. Al-Shabab forces control the South of Somalia and have been crossing the border with ease for the last several years in order to intermittently wreak havoc in mainland Lamu County. During this period, the island itself has largely avoided any significant danger, likely owing to the fact that it is predominantly Muslim. For these many reasons the US State Department advises against any travel near the Northern border of Kenya. Given all of this slightly terrifying data PLUS my aforementioned complacency, I was quite hesitant to book this trip. The odds were even further stacked against me going as it was in-fact Easter weekend, the largest Al-Shabab target of the year. I petitioned Pedrito to join me, but his heavily fixed budget meant I was on my own.
Fortunately, I stumbled upon some random dude’s Lamu travel post and it made several good arguments for visiting. I mean if this giant target sign of a white dude thought it was chill to visit then I couldn’t really back out, could I? His awesome photographs depicting a welcoming and crazily-photogenic Lamu also put me over the top. Even better a direct flight from Mombasa had opened up a few weeks before, saving me several hours of travel for a modest $15 more. Eventually a half-dozen people at the clinic and in my ex-pat friends group confirmed that they themselves had visited Lamu recently and that it was absolutely fine. After booking my tickets I also came to find that several other developed nations had lifted their Lamu island (but not mainland) travel restrictions. At this point I’m basically blaming the USA for institutionalizing my bitch-status. But we digress…
All of my traveling hesitancy was put to rest by Arnold the delightful proprietor of the Jambo House. Arnold’s very affordable establishment offers quaint but clean rooms, free breakfast, and a lovely common area with multiple lofts. He can also easily arrange for city tours, sunset hikes, and sailing trips. While walking into Jambo House I met Jack, a Canadian solo-traveler who was winding down after a months-long internship in Nairobi. Ten minutes later, while checking in with Arnold, Jack called to see if I wanted to join him for lunch and a sailing trip. Always eager to join in on other’s brilliant plans, I of course obliged. Thirty minutes later I was on the water…
Dhow sailing offers an elegant look into centuries past. There are no modernities, just a wooden boat, a single sail, ropes, and a 3-man crew. It is basically impossible to not be ‘present’ while sailing. The ocean breeze cools while waves splash against the boat and scenery drifts by you almost imperceptibly. Like staring into the Grand Canyon it offers a slice of the sublime. I’m generally terrified of water in general, needless to say the experience of trusting our make-shift vessel and African crew while clutching my $1500 camera most certainly qualified as a spiritual experience.
These days employment opportunities are few and far between in Lamu. Once a vibrant trade port, things have become much harder these days. Foreign travel restrictions have placed a stranglehold on tourism and farming is very difficult when it never rains. As such the local Economy values tourism above all else. This begs the following questions: Is Lamu truly just a quaint island with a slow pace and uniquely friendly people? Or are the people, ravaged by economic downturn, just happy to do anything to make foreigners feel comfortable and spend money?? Are these ideas even mutually exclusive??? As usual the answer to any such ‘or’ questions is probably a confused ‘yes?’ I’m generally pretty good at telling when fake people are showing fake love to me. Even more so when it’s straight up to my face. I suspect even Drake would love Lamu though…
Unfortunately, the Lamu archipelago faces many looming and possible disastrous changes. Kenya and China together have recognized the importance of East Africa in Atlantic trade and they have decided that Lamu should become the largest trade hub in East Africa. Just North of the island ground breaking has already begun on what would be become the largest port in East Africa. The population of Lamu county is expected to eventually boom from 100,000 to above 1 million in the next 30 years with over 400,000 new jobs created to build and maintain the new port. The government has tried to sell these changes as a huge employment opportunity for Lamu residents, but few believe that their history as sailors, fisherman, and farmers will equip them to transition to such new opportunities. I too fear the archipelago will become so altered that the entire culture of Lamu will be erased.
To their credit, Kenya has proposed significant funding for scholarships to increase opportunity for the youth of Lamu, but there remains yet to be any follow-through on these promises. My often-referenced-good-friend Danny Low actually spent several months learning Swahili in Lamu (because he is just dope and does dope shit) and he noted that a significant portion of local incomes are subsidized by US aid. Supposedly this aid is meant to combat Al-Shabab influence as it is well known that Al-Shabab uses financial incentives to lure and radicalize poor Lamu youth. From that, one can infer that Drumpfian reductions in foreign aid would only serve to further destabilize the area and embolden groups like Al-Shabab. Ughhh even here he ruins shit. Seriously, Fuck that guy.
Putting all of this together, I still don’t know where I am left. I do know that Lamu and its people were truly lovely and that I very much enjoyed my time there. There likely isn’t a better place I could have visited as a reluctant solo-traveler in Kenya. So for this I will forever be thankful to Lamu. As far as what the future holds for Lamu, we can only hope. But given the rest of the world’s track record for developing in Africa in a culturally respectable and equitable manner, I won’t be holding my breath.
You’ve got blue blood on your hands,
I think it’s my own,
We can go down to the street,
And follow the shore,
Of all the people,
We could be two,
Then I bite my nails to the quick,
Run back home,
Foals – Blue Blood