I first visited Lamu when I was eight years old. My mother was excavating the Pate and Manda ruins with Neville Chittick, the director of the British Institute in East Africa and the love of her life. They camped on Manda Toto, a small island of Lamu whose significance will be clear later. ‘Mama Sheila’ was the doyenne of Lamu society – beloved by all. Chronicler of the old oral tradition, culture and friend and patron of many. She bought a house there in about 1970 which she owned until the 1980s. I spent many happy holidays there, and our honeymoon.
In 1966 there was no electricity, no vehicles, no coke and only two ‘hotels’. We slept on the roof of Kadara’s (long-since gone) and it was all very dirty. Up to the age of about 12/13 I loathed going there – until it became hippy central and then of course I changed my mind: it became exotic and thrilling!
In some ways, Lamu hasn’t changed much – there are of course cars, coke and electricity but it is still filthy. Donkeys roam the streets (the Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary is there to ‘save’ them) and you have to pick your way through their droppings; cats are everywhere – the descendants of Egypt’s sphinx cats apparently; the small boys are ever naughty and cheeky; the drains still overflow and stink; the hustle and bustle remains.
The main changes are the obvious Wahabi-isation of the town – most women are fully veiled, and even the small girls have head coverings; the building boom with fancy new mosques, hotels and smart wazungu (white people) houses in the back streets (and even more so in Shela where we go for the second half of our stay); and the number of new residents from upcountry who live and work in Lamu now. You can tell them by their western dress.
Long gone are the days when it was a sleepy outpost on the Swahili coast whose main trade was in seasonal mangroves, mangoes and fishing. Now – post pandemic – it is a recovering tourist destination, with appropriately high prices for smart accommodation, boat trips and the like. It is also home to a controversial Chinese-built port on the mainland, just round the northern tip of the island, which seems largely unused.
We spend our first three nights in an old haunt – the Lamu House Hotel, on the sea front just down from where our old house used to be. We are overjoyed to discover that the world-famous Lamu Maulidi, which celebrates the birth of the Prophet, is taking place right now! Sheila had always rhapsodised about this event and here we are.
The celebrations take the form of a kind of parade of the bands, where all the religious groups gather on the seafront and play songs, chant and dance desultorily, waving sticks. The sea-front is thronged with the town all dressed in silks and fine array – the hijab and niqab variety could rival any in the Gulf! The small girls are in flouncy, frilly party dresses and little shoes, hair beautifully braided where you can see it – they too are mostly wearing headscarves. The only exceptions are the local Bajun ladies who are sporting vivid colours and resemble butterflies as they flit between the burkas, where the only nod to colour might be a golden or lime green burka or niqab.
On our first full day, there is a parade of the army, police, boy and girl scouts in the main square. The local Governor, MP, Chief of Police – you name it – are all present and correct. Again, an absolute sell-out. The most interesting aspect for me is the female sergeant who is presenting arms, complete with sword. Kenya is modernising.
Before we watch this, we visit Sheila’s old housekeeper, Ali Maulidi – and yes I can still make a Swahili pun on his name and the current festival! Now about 80, with barely a tooth in his head and a slightly wandering mind, we still manage to reminisce about the good old days and he is delighted with his zawadi (gift). He lives in semi squalor with his adorable kitten, but has a huge TV and wireless, and a relative who comes to cook. We are both amazed he survived Covid – but apparently not many people in Lamu died from it.
The following afternoon there are dhow and donkey races. The dhows are well offshore, but make for a spectacular sight as they whizz along in full sail, neck and neck. Our boat-boy for our subsequent trip tells us is dhow came second!
The donkey race is an excuse for some good PR by a maize-meal sponsor who is throwing out freebies with abandon. Lamu is still mainly poor – there were no tourists for two years, which is the main source of income these days – so this is popular. We have to wait in baking hot sun until this is over for the race to start. It is chaos. Kids and people everywhere, in the way and in danger of being mown down by the donkeys that eventually pound down the seafront, the small jockeys whipping them in frenzy. We discover the race had to be re-run the next day as boys on motorbikes (yes, motorbikes in Lamu) impeded the winner…it is nevertheless a most exhilarating experience. I simply love this side of Lamu.
The grand finale of the Maulidi takes place on our last day in town. This is a procession of all the groups from all over the region – even as far as Tanzania , with flag-waving, singing and dancing. The testosterone is raging, and the drummers beat out wild rhythms while the boys in the bands gyrate as they process through the arch to the main square. If we weren’t in Lamu it could be intimidating – we are completely hemmed in but the crowd, despite pushing and shoving, is friendly and exuberant. The women are preening, kohl-rimmed eyes peeking flirtatiously over the niqab, and showing off their gorgeous children; ice lollies are the rage and street food is everywhere. It is Lamu at is best.
After all this excitement we move up to Peponi, the first proper hotel in Lamu which started about the time of my first visit. I used to hang out in the dunes with Lars, son of the original owners, who sadly died a few years ago, smoking sneaky Sportsman – and worse! His widow, Carol, and their daughters are still managing this as a family hotel, and the attention to detail really shows; perhaps the fact that her staff own 10% of the business helps too. She is devoted to the island and is building a new house and organic shamba with the help of three camels, to be found every morning on the beach along with the local donkeys.
We have a wonderful relaxing time here, reading, enjoying the superb food, and meeting some of the old eccentrics who inhabit Shela – there is one who keeps accosting us and when I ask her name, she says ‘People call me darling, but you can call me Valerie’. I hope no one ever considered Mama Sheila as dotty as these old dears.
Shela’s beach remains one of the best in the world – it stretches for miles and miles and is uninhabited; nowadays you see local couples enjoying it on a Sunday, the footballers knocking a ball about and the occasional tourist wandering up and down lookingfor sand dollars .
We can’t ever come to Lamu without making a pilgrimage to Manda Toto where we buried Sheila’s, Louise’s and Dad’s ashes together. Divided in life but united in death. We hire a local fibreglass boat (now made on the island) and together with captain Salim, his young son Muhammed and boat boy Ahmed chug gently along the Pate channel until we reach Manda Toto. Now home to a fishing camp – lots of huge lobsters and snappers on show – we find a spot that looks like it could have been the place but is probably not (after nine years ago we are unsure where exactly it was – all the casuarinas are now grown!) and lay some bougainvillea and frangipani on the site in full view of the sea. So peaceful.
A lovely way of remembering them and some of the best days of all of our lives – for Sheila – her happy place; for Tom, who loved Africa above all else; for my enchanted childhood; and for Louise who simply adored the exotic and always pined to go to Lamu. And now she rests here with her grandparents.