[words and photograph © Narina Exelby]
In the early morning, before the sun’s first rays begin to flirt with palm-thatched roofs, Lamu wakes to the muezzin’s call to prayer.
It’s an evocative call. Beautifully haunting, it drifts across rooftops that have witnessed more than a hundred thousand sunrises, and filters through wild tendrils of bougainvillea down to street level. There, the muezzin’s voice channels through a confusion of alleys and wafts past carved wooden doors before it dissolves, finally, into the gentle tide. It is here, where the Indian Ocean meets the shoreline of perhaps Kenya’s loveliest island, that muezzins’ voices have greeted the day for more than seven centuries.
Lamu is Kenya as you’d never expect it to be. Instead of vast grassy plains reigned over by prides of lions, it is a small island of sand dunes and harbour cats. Instead of being forested by sultry fever trees and matriarchal baobabs, hysterical bougainvillea burst cerise flowers against Lamu’s old coral stone walls. And instead of regal Maasai warriors tending their cattle, young boys wearing kofias chivvy up their laden donkeys while from under their buibui veils, women scuttle children along well-worn streets. Lamu is an island of surprises; an island of mystical romance. It is the Africa you’d least expect.
As the muezzin’s last call fades, the day breaks. Boys dive into the sea from the old harbour walls, disturbing the mercury surface and turning the masts of fishermen’s dhows into pendulums that gently set the rhythm for the day.
Life happens slowly here in Lamu. This island is the oldest inhabited Swahili settlement in East Africa, and the days continue much as they have for the past 700 years. There are no tarred roads here as there is no need for them, if you’re willing to overlook the rusty ambulance, the Donkey Sanctuary ambulance, two well-used tractors and the district commissioner’s car. Instead of vehicles, donkeys carry provisions through a web of narrow streets that would take a visitor weeks to understand. Dhows ferry passengers between Lamu and the mainland, and fishermen prefer to use the wind to power their boats, even though nowadays almost all have motors.
As has happened every day for centuries, older men gather along the seafront. Some wear khanzus (caftan-like robes), others wear kangas (sarongs); the bold designs and colours – greens, oranges, reds, blues – add a beautiful energy to the town’s neutral shades of wood, earth and coral. The men sit on rickety crates or upturned buckets and it’s from here, often over a glass of strong black coffee and with an old friend, that they watch as the day unfolds. Although Lamu is no longer the trading hub it once was, the harbour is busy in the mornings; dhows move out to sea, captains try to rustle up passengers and people gather on the pier, waiting for the ferries that will take them to the mainland.
While many researchers call Lamu the cradle of Swahili civilisation, it is the island’s trade history that has shaped the town you see today. Once the most important trade centre in East Africa, Lamu’s architecture shows influences from Europe, India and Arabia and even the labyrinth street pattern has its roots in Arab traditions.
One block away from the sea, the day busies on Main Street. Heavy doors yawn open. Children tumble out and skip to school, their Dora The Explorer and Manchester United satchels thudding against their backs. As with many African towns, people are mad about English football and you’re not likely to go very far without seeing a sign for Old Trafford Dressmaking, Emirates Arsenal Shop or the logos of favourite teams painted elaborately onto walls.
Although the walls of Main Street have become canvases for enthusiastic signwriters, the building materials used in Lamu remain true to tradition. In fact, many of the buildings in the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, are centuries old. The walls are made from coral, lime and mangrove poles, and most of the roofs – if not flat and strengthened by wooden beams – are thatched with palm leaves. Structurally, the buildings are very simple, but it is the detail that makes them special: intricately carved wooden doors, secret courtyards, beautifully arched verandas and detailed carvings around windows that create the illusion of space.
It’s much needed, that sense of space. Many of the alleys and streets are so narrow, you’d have to stand in a doorway to let a donkey pass. From the streets, the two- and three-storey buildings appear as uninterrupted lengths of solid walls, but from the rooftop terraces, the view of the town becomes a higgledy-piggledy jigsaw – thatch, iron and dark, glass-less windows – that stretches between dunes and sea. Up here, history mingles with modern day: roofs, generations old, are cluttered with solar panels, satellite dishes and aerials.
From up here, you’re afforded a glimpse into morning life on the narrow streets of Lamu. It’s a slow pace; gentle. Two little girls skip together and sing, while a young boy draws shapes in the dirt. Three children test their balance as they walk along a low wall, a soft breeze tugging on a girl’s silk scarf. At the edge of a sand square, a man closes a heavy wooden door behind him; before he’s taken 10 steps, he is in conversation with an elderly man. Here, people matter, and no-one seems too hurried to spend a few moments greeting friends.
While traces of the island’s trading history are visible in the peoples’ faces – Arab, Indian and Bantu features characterise the town’s population – it is the clothes they wear that reveal their religion. Sometimes bright, sometimes subdued, the buibui, kofias, khanzus and kangas are ubiquitous; Lamu is celebrated as an important centre for the study of Islamic culture.
There is a letter, addressed to foreigners, which is pinned in various places around town. It is written with respect, and is a page that perhaps best conjures the ethos of the island: “This is a conservative Muslim town with an ancient heritage of peace and goodwill. Please tread gently here, for our children are watching you. This is our home and we hope you will respect it and enjoy the unique atmosphere of this enduring yet fragile culture. Otherwise, the effect of your presence will destroy this rare and remarkable town.”
The sounds that rise to the rooftops of Lamu are beautifully organic: a light, happy chorus of children singing; lowly donkeys braying; a brisk clip-clip-clip of stones being thrown onto a builder’s pile. Up here, in the early morning, it is very easy to close your eyes and lose complete track of time – not of minutes, but of centuries. There are no alarms, no motors, no ringtones. It is only the muezzin’s call to prayer – his voice ringing out as others have generations before – that will mark the passing of the day.