Lamu – Africa’s Oldest Swahili Settlement

Located on the border of Kenya and Somaliland, Lamu greets visitors with a half tarred road and a few potholes for an airstrip. However, you’re not allowed to complain coz “This is Africa” (common saying when thing’s go wrong). And, given that the bus is regularly hijacked by Somali land pirates, the flight’s definitely a safer option.

Lamu is one of the earliest Swahili settlements and served as an important trading port in an erstwhile era. Influences of Indian and Arab cultures are evident even today from Indian songs playing in the streets to Arab dhows (sailboats) dotting the coast. Set foot in Lamu and it’s quite apparent why this is a town that time forgot about. Houses are ancient and built within a few feet from each other to save people from the wrath of the scorching sun. Add to that the fact that the only means of land transport on the island is a fleet of shiny new donkeys. After all according to an ancient Swahili proverb ‘A man without a donkey, is a donkey’.

Apart from the great seafood, exotic fruit juices, tiny roads and hoardes of donkeys, Lamu has a lot more to offer and you’ll find that 3 days in Lamu is far from sufficient..

Lamu Fort

Although the fort itself is nothing to write home about, the view from the ramparts ensures that the fort is well worth a visit. Since it stands right next to the town centre, it offers a great unobtrusive view of the happenings at the the town centre. Great way to pass the time on a lazy sunny afternoon.

Lamu Museum & Swahili House

Both of these buildings house well-preserved Swahili artifacts that give you a peek into the past offering you a clear picture of what life was like in the good old days.

Sunset Dhow Trip

It would be a crime to visit Lamu and skip a dhow trip. The boat sets off from Lamu at around 4pm and you get to view the sun set over the Indian Ocean with dhows scattered all across the orange water. The boat then drops you at a deserted beach where the boatmen build a bonfire. Definitely a unique experience that will not be easily forgotten.

Manda Island

Manda Island is Lamu’s sister island. Although the island was inhabited a few hundred years ago, the lack of drinking water on this island forced people to move to confine themselves to Lamu. An additional risk of setting up shop on Manda is the elephants that are known to incredulously swim across from the Kenyan mainland to feed at Manda Island. Ruins of a mosque at Manda have been preserved until today. If the local fishermen are to be believed, Manda beach provides a good vantage point to view Somali pirates making their way in their tiny dinghies to the office.

Shela Beach

Sun, white sand, blue water. That’s exactly what Shela beach is all about. If you’ve had enough of the tiny streets of Lamu, Shela beach is a short 15 mins walk away. If walking isn’t your cup of tea, most of the boats will be more than happy to ferry you along the coast. This is probably one of the few beaches in the World with camel rides on offer. Imagine an ant walking around on a ping-pong table and that’s exactly how you would feel in comparison to the vastness of Shela beach.

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2 Comments on “Lamu – Africa’s Oldest Swahili Settlement

  1. Jason, while your sparse description of Lamu conveys some ambience it leaves out the history of centuries of living in Lamu, the Swahili cultural influences of the place and the vast Lamu Archipelago that Lamu Island belongs to, with its rare marine and bio-diversity.

    I would however like to point out a few mistakes in your reporting.

    1. Buses are not regularly hijacked. That is an untruth that damages our reputation on Lamu. The last scirmish on the roads, as far as I am aware is back in 2002. And people were never hijacked, robbed, yes, hijacked, no.

    2. The Fort in Lamu is something to write home about, particularly because it stands in the middle of town and acts as our “square” where all kinds of activities happen. Even on a day with no activity, it is worth sitting in the square and watching Lamu life. It is interesting and very pictorial.

    3. On Manda, you forgot to mention that there are the Takwa ruins, a walled Swahili town from the 16th century, which visitors can visit. There are also turtle hatchings that one can view, which makes it a very special place.

    4. The 12 km beach on the island is called Shela beach and not Shelly as you have indicated. It is also the name of the closest village, where guest houses and hotels can be found.

    Lamu is indeed special. And visitors are always welcomed to take part in festivities and other cultural events.

    Hadija in Lamu

    • Hi Hadija,

      Thank you for your detailed comment. Lamu is indeed a beautiful place with a rich cultural heritage. In response to your points

      1. Hijacked or robbed – does it matter? Having lived in Nairobi for 6 months in 2010, all my local friends advised me against the bus ride for safety reasons.

      2. ‘Something to write home about’ was just a figure of speech. This is because the Lamu fort doesn’t really match up architecturally to something like the Old Fort at Zanzibar and Fort Jesus at Mombasa.

      3. The Takwa ruins can be seen in my pictures. This article is just a description of my experience in Lamu and in no way is it a comprehensive Lamu guide.

      4. Time has worn away the details and I did mess up the name. Thanks for pointing that out. I have updated the article.

      Happy reading..!!

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