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Lamu - an Exotic Island on the East African Coast

Emmanuel Kariuki is a writer on social-political issues of his home country, Kenya. He is also a published author of 20 works of fiction

The Lamu Ocean Front

The Lamu Ocean Front

Lamu Island

Lamu Island belongs to an archipelago of five islands that include Pate, Manda, Kiwayu and Manda Toto. Lamu Town on Lamu Island is not only the largest urban settlement, but also the capital of Lamu County. This archipelago is on the East African coast, with a section of the county on the mainland.

Lamu Island is one of the most ancient settlements in Africa. Archaeologists propose that habitation started in the 1300s, but evidence from hieroglyphics suggest otherwise. Lamu has been mentioned several times in Ancient Egyptian texts as ‘Amu.’ The other land mentioned in the ancient texts is Punt. The fact that there is a Somali breakaway country called Puntland further north of Lamu is a clear indication that these two territories are the ones mentioned in the ancient texts. It is also significant that the original inhabitants of Amu call themselves ‘Amu’ and their Swahili dialect, ‘Ki-Amu.’

Lamu culture is infused with Bantu, Arab and Indian traditions. For years Arabs had made the East African Coast their trading posts. Goods were traded from the interior of Africa for onward ferrying to the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. There is evidence that even China was involved in this trade.

Entrance to the town square

Entrance to the town square

A brief History of Lamu

Lamu, as we have seen above is not just the name of an island. It is an archipelago that includes parts of the mainland. Lamu Island was selected as the capital due to the ease of defending it from enemies approaching from the Mainland or the ocean.

During the reign of Thothmes III of 18th Dynasty Egypt, an officer by the name Amen-em-heb reports that on separate expeditions, he took Amu prisoners and delivered them to the Pharaoh. Most Egyptologists place Amu in the Middle East but I bet to differ. In his adventures, Amen-em-heb reports that he also hunts and kills 120 elephants. I doubt that three thousand years ago there was that many elephants in Syria as Egyptologists imply. Amu, just like today, must have included parts of the mainland where Elephants could be hunted. In any case, it has been reported that during low tide, wild animals do manage to cross from the mainland to Manda Island.

Peace on Lamu Island was shattered after the Portuguese discovered a sea route from Europe to India. Soon after, they sought to dominate trade on the Indian Ocean by levying taxes on all imports and exports from and to the Arabian and Indian subcontinent. When the Lamu people defied the payment of these taxes, a Portuguese naval officer by the name of Tristao da Cunha led a blockade on the island in 1506. The blockade was only lifted after the Lamu rulers agreed to pay annual taxes to the Portuguese. Lamu’s independence was only restored in 1652 with the help of the Omanis who had migrated their capital to the Island of Zanzibar.

A canon facing the ocean just in case...

A canon facing the ocean just in case...

The peace and prosperity of Lamu was much envied by the Mazrui Arabs who attempted to take over the island in 1812 in what is known as the battle of Shela. The Mazrui were an Omani Arab clan opposed to the Al Busaidi dynasty that ruled the Omani empire from its headquarters in Zanzibar. These Mazrui at some point, ruled over the city state of Mombasa and naturally sought to extend their influence to Lamu. The Mazruis were repulsed by the shaken Amu. However, to ensure future aggression against the island state did not recur, the fort was turned into a garrison under the umbrella of the Zanzibar sultanate. Shela today is a beach that is popular with both tourists and locals on Lamu Island. The Ocean front facing Manda is lined with ancient canons, most likely acquired from the Portuguese.

Having turned Lamu into a protectorate, Zanzibar thus extended its realm to all the islands and a 10-mile mainland strip along the East African coast. After the decline of the Portuguese in East Africa, the next European power to lay a stake on parts of Lamu was Germany. They built the first post office on the East African Coast that is today the German Post Office Museum in Lamu.

Later, Lamu fell under British influence after a barter trade with the Germans. In the Zanzibar Treaty of July 1, 1890, which is also referred to as the Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty, Germany ceded to Great Britain her claims to the Zanzibar protectorate and the land along the coast between Witu and the Juba River. On her part, Britain ceded to Germany the island of Helgoland in the North Sea. The ten-mile strip dominion of the Zanzibar protectorate survived up to 1963 when Kenya became independent of Britain and consolidated the ten-mile strip into the republic, including of course the Lamu Archipelago. Zanzibar on its part remained independent for a while after the independence of mainland Tanganyika. Soon after, a revolution occurred and the Sultan was overthrown by a popular uprising. Zanzibar federated with Tanganyika to form the Republic of Tanzania.

The left wing of the Lamu fort

The left wing of the Lamu fort

Mkunguni tree - the town square

Mkunguni tree - the town square

How to get to Lamu Island

The distance from Nairobi to Lamu is 463 km as the crow flies and 236 km from Mombasa, the second largest city of Kenya which is also on the East African coast. The uninhabited Manda Island is just across the channel. By some ancient twist of fate, Manda island residents fled, living nature to take over their buildings which are now ruins of interest to archaeologist. No one knows for sure why the residents fled. Some say that the water in the wells turned saline. To this day, Manda Island, which is slightly bigger than Lamu Island, is uninhabited except for a military camp and an international airport.

The Manda Island airport is one of the gateways to Lamu Island from Nairobi, before crossing the channel by boat. The other option is to travel on the mainland by road, then cross over to Lamu Island by boat. Since Mombasa is also on the Indian Ocean coast, there is the other option of using a boat directly to Lamu Island. International tourists can therefore plan to land either in Nairobi or Mombasa then choose a connecting mode to Lamu –By air to Manda island and connect by speed boat, or direct to Lamu by boat from Mombasa.

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A narrow Lamu street. Many streets are this narrow.

A narrow Lamu street. Many streets are this narrow.

Transport on Lamu Island

After arriving at Lamu Island by boat from the Indian Ocean, visitors are surprised to find no public transport vehicles. There are not buses, no minibuses and no tricycles – not even the motorcycle taxi popularly known as ‘bodaboda’ on the mainland. Don’t even think of Uber. People mostly walk. A few ride bicycles. Donkeys and handcarts are used for ferrying goods from one place to the other. The occasional man riding a donkey is very common, but never a woman. Lamu ladies will never be caught riding a donkey, no matter the emergency to the best of my knowledge. To this end, there are over 3000 donkeys on the island which makes ‘donkey droppings’ a significant sanitary problem. With this number of donkeys, it is not surprising that there is a ‘donkey sanctuary’ to take care of the pregnant ones, the sick and the ailing.

A dhow waiting to be loaded

A dhow waiting to be loaded

The Economy of Lamu

Before the abolition of the slave trade, Lamu not only traded in slaves but also with mangrove poles, ivory and rhino horn from the mainland. These goods were shipped by dhows to the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Trade goods to the interior of Africa included beads, copper wire and cloth among others. Today, the harvesting of mangrove poles is prohibited. However, in Lamu where mangrove poles are an important ingredient in its building industry and boat constructions, limited harvesting is allowed.

There is some agricultural activity on the island’s interior and many families indulge in fishing. However, the island relies more on tourism to keep its menfolk in employment. The youth operate traditional dhows and motorboats to take tourists on excursions from beach to beach. Other youths operate motorboats to ferry visitors and locals to and from the airport on Manda Island or other destinations on the mainland.

There are many high-end medium and budget hotels. Petley's Inn at the waterfront is the oldest hotel. Others include the Lamu Palace Hotel and the Sunsail Hotel among others. Below is a list of some hotels with an idea of the cost of Bed and Breakfast as at May 2020. In order to appreciate the cost, one $ USD was equivalent to Ksh 106.97 at the point of writing this article.

  • Majlis Resort Ksh 27675
  • Kijani Ksh 15692
  • Undavelo House Ksh 9128
  • Msafini Hotel Ksh 6098
  • Jua House Ksh 6298
  • Subira house Ksh 4149
  • Shella White House Ksh 3800
  • Dudu Villas and Cottages Ksh 2158
A view of the ocean from a hotel window

A view of the ocean from a hotel window

Lamu is a UNESCO world heritage city.

The architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically indicates the influence of several cultures. The buildings on the shoreline have a European accent while, Arabia and India have contributed immensely to the wood curving and door frames. All this has been incorporated into traditional Swahili techniques.

The architecture of Lamu makes use of the available limited space by sacrificing the width of streets to the barest minimum. Quick lime is used to bond the limestones that are mined on Manda Island and transported over the ocean by boat, before donkeys take over to the final destination. Mangrove poles are used for structural and slab support with a few poles left exposed in ceilings and part of the interior design. More hardwood can be seen in window embellishments, door frames and balconies.

Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lamu has a strict building and renovation code. One needs authorization from the National Museums of Kenya to make any modifications to existing buildings, when putting up a new building, rules exist to ensure that the character of Lamu architecture is maintained.

Donkeys do what lorries do elsewhere

Donkeys do what lorries do elsewhere

Mangrove poles

Mangrove trees have been exploited almost to extinction. It is for this reason that harvesting is regulated by government. The products of Mangrove include firewood, charcoal, furniture and building poles for both modern and traditional dwellings. Due to its hardness and resistance to saline ocean water, mangrove wood is used in boat building and boat repair.

Furniture craftsmam

Furniture craftsmam

Crafts of Lamu

Lamu craftsmen produce a variety of products from wood. These include ornate furniture that is embellished with curved motifs, weaving with thread and inlaying with turtle shell. Turtles are today protected by the Kenya Wildlife Service, so this resource has disappeared from furniture.

Boat builders make a variety of ocean going vessels, from the Mtumbwi (canoe) to the Jahazi (long distance sailing ship). The commonest vessel is the wind sail boat called a dau (dhow).

A medium-sized boat called a Mtepe, was furnished with a mat-woven sail. Its planks were held together by wooden pegs and sewn with coir. Today, due to modernisation of building techniques, only models of these type of boat exist in Museums. There are three models in Fort Jesus Museum, one model in the Lamu museum and an almost life-size model in the Kenya Ports Authority Museum in Mombasa. Other models are on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London and the Science Museum in Kensington, London.

An ornately curved Lamu door

An ornately curved Lamu door

Festivals in Lamu

Lamu Old Town is a collection of buildings on 16 hectares of land. This space was recognized and gazetted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. There are several annual events that celebrate the unique Islamic/Swahili culture of Lamu as discussed below.

The Maulidi festival

The four day Lamu Maulidi festival is held during the third month of the Muslim calendar. Besides being a celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), It also helps to promote and preserve the island’s Swahili cultural heritage.

The festival includes religious recitals as well as readings and performances by storytellers. Traditional dances from all the islands in the archipelago are also performed. This version of the Maulidi, was introduced with reforms by an Arab called Habib Swaleh at the end of the 19th century. Pilgrims come from all over East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Other activities in the festival include demonstrations of dhow-building, painting limbs with henna and the making of fish traps among others. Men display their skills in playing the traditional bao game while the youth participate in the popular ‘Donkey race’.

Lamu Yoga Festival

The Lamu Yoga Festivals was started in 2014. It brings together Yoga enthusiasts from all over the world for four days of intense Yoga. Yoga classes and meditations are held on the beaches of Shela, Lamu and Manda. To crown the festival, Several competitions, among them a dhow race are held. The festival ends with a beach party.

Lamu Painters Festival

The 16 day Lamu Painters Festival is attended by artists from Europe and Africa. Artists paint the landscapes of the island, market, streets scenes, portraits and landscapes. The Artists move about the island for the duration of the festival, painting from rooftops, on the streets and wherever else they can. The festival like other festivals on the Island, ends with a Dhow race.

One of the Lamu Mosques

One of the Lamu Mosques

The Shela Hat Contest

In this festival only locals can participate to make all kinds of hats. It was launched in 2010 before becoming a biannual event. It is hosted on the beach in front of the Peponi Hotel.

Participants must design hats with recycled materials such as paper, bone, shell and plastics. By the end of the festival Lamu Island is much cleaner place. The finale cannot be complete without a dhow race.

New Year’s Day Dhow Race

The New Year’s Day in Lamu is celebrated with a dhow race.

Enchanting Lamu


  1. Wikipedia
  3. Britannica
  4. Daily nation
  5. TripAdvisor

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Emmanuel Kariuki


Emmanuel Kariuki (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on May 28, 2020:

Hi Liz. Thanks for encouraging words. Am motivated to write some more.

Emmanuel Kariuki (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on May 28, 2020:

Hi Devika. Thanks for the thumps up. Once we learn how to live side by side with a tamed Covid-19, we will travel again. Hopefully you can place Lamu in your deary. Cheers.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 23, 2020:

This is an interesting, well illustrated and very well-structured article. I have learnt a lot and especially appreciated the historical details.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 23, 2020:

The island is beautiful and so interesting to know so much more of it. I have not been and travel plans are put on hold for now a very well-researched hub and in detail.

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