Photo: Jen Watson/Shutterstock

Lamu Island, Kenya: The Real Swahili Coast

Insider Guides
by Gregory Kruse Nov 26, 2009

The Swahili Coast is an ancient place where cultures have met and blended during ten centuries of trade. Lamu Town, on Lamu Island off the north Kenya coast, is the purest expression of Swahili culture remaining.

Getting there

Lamu Island is one of the larger islands of the archipelago by the same name that lie scattered along the Kenyan coast just south of the border with Somalia.

The easiest and safest way to reach Lamu is by air, since the roads are poor and sometimes impassable, and the infamous Somali pirates operate offshore. Several of Kenya’s reliable small airline companies fly daily from Nairobi to Lamu, including Air Kenya and Safarilink (out of Wilson Airport), and Fly 540 (from Jomo Kenyatta International).

Be prepared for sticker shock — a roundtrip is over $300 per person.

The flight carries you out to the rustic landing strip on nearby Manda Island in about two hours. Collect your bag, walk down to the new jetty, and board a dhow to cross the channel to Lamu Town, visible in the distance. It’s only a 15-minute boat ride.

Shortly after taking to the water, Lamu Town will come into focus. Sure, modern amenities like satellite dishes and telephone poles are present, but overall the town retains the image of an old Swahili port with mosques overlooking the dockside go-downs and tall houses of once-wealthy merchants.

The waterfront is full of fishmongers and wholesalers, idlers and laborers, men in kanzu and kofia (caftan and traditional embroidered cap), women shrouded in black bui bui, and uncountable donkeys, dogs, cats, chickens, and children taking it easy.

Getting around

The narrow alleyways of the old town hardly permit the passage of two people side-by-side. There’s only one automobile on the island, and almost everyone gets around on foot, or on donkey-back.

Water taxis are available for a few hundred bob (local slang for Kenyan shillings). Bargain hard. The price will come down.

Even on the hottest days of the year, the alleyways of Lamu Town are cool and shady. Bougainvillea and frangipani line the walls and the passages are animated by the billowing veils of Muslim women in their bui bui.

With more than 30 mosques and a population of just over 5,000, Islam is ever-present, beginning with the first call to prayer before sunrise.

Harambee Avenue, the main street parallel to the wharf just 50 meters from the waterfront, is good for a wander. Other than the occasional tourist and a few modern boutiques, there’s little to indicate the town has changed much in the last few decades.

Locals will ignore you as they go about their business or chat in the doorways of the many little dukas that line the street.

In the town square in front of the old Fort, built by the Omani Arabs in 1808, an ancient almond tree with broad, dark green leaves creates an atmosphere of calm and a shady place for people to gather.

The fort is interesting to explore, and the National Museum nearby is supposed to be one of the best in Kenya.

Where to eat

It’s easy to eat well for very little in Lamu. Whispers Cafe on Harambee, behind the old waterfront mosque (now abandoned), has a cool courtyard filled with palms and flowering vines.

A couple miles east along the waterfront is Shela Village, where you’ll find the Peponi Hotel.

A local institution since the 1960s, and still operated by the founding family, the hotel is worth a visit, and the restaurant is excellent.

If nothing else, try a dawa (a popular Kenyan drink made of limes, honey, and vodka) on the veranda, where you can sit and watch the boats sail by.

Where to stay

Near the Peponi in Shela Village is Kijani House, a complex of a dozen rooms built around a labyrinth of little gardens with small dipping pools for cooling down on a hot day. Rates are very reasonable.

There are other small boutique hotels in Shela, and many hotels and rooming houses in Lamu Town. If you prefer peace and quiet, and easy access to a wonderful beach, Shela is the better option. The southern shore of Lamu Island has a 13km sandy beach, and you’ll rarely see 10 people at a time on it.

You can also hire a dhow to take you to Manda Island to walk the beach opposite Shela.

There are B&Bs and a bar there, and at the eastern end, just before you reach the wild and rocky Indian Ocean coastline at Ras Kitau, there’s a camping area for backpackers.

Ras Kitau seems to go on forever, with craggy promontories, wide sandy beaches, and big tidal pools — the Swahili Coast as the Portuguese saw it in the 16th century.

Community Connection

Matador’s got you covered if you’re heading over to Africa’s west coast as well. Check out Five Reasons to Go to Angola in 2009 (And Beyond).

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