Lamu – Live in the Slow Lane

In Adventures, Articles, Gallery, Places by Nick DallLeave a Comment

The bus ticket inspires confidence: PWANI TAWAKAL MINI COACH – WE RUN, OTHERS FLY. It cost us, my brother Alex and I, 60 bucks each and it’s taking us from Mombasa to Lamu. We pass through fearsome (for those of us who have ever bush-dived) pineapple fields before getting to Kilifi – a magnificent steep-sided lagoon – and, a couple of hours later, Malindi.
Lamu, the main island in the archipelago of the same name, is situated just South of the Somali border. Like Zanzibar its population is predominantly Muslim and its economy is traditionally based on fishing and boat making. Unlike Zanzibar there are only two cars and at least ten thousand donkeys on Lamu, and it is only now being touched by the lecherous finger of tourism.
The ‘power station’ is a sight to behold, but the security guard won’t let me take a picture. A mammoth generator belches and spews 24-seven. Thick, black diesel coats the walls and the barrels and the technicians and the askari’s truncheon. For a place which is often windy and always sunny there must be better ways to produce electricity.
The streets of the old town are labyrinthine and they are well worth exploring. We come across a video cinema (adorned with a splodgy Cupid and the legend, WE RENEW BROKEN HEARTS) where for 5 bucks you can squeeze into a dingy hovel filled with garish plastic chairs and watch a scratched copy of Titanic or Rambo or, if you’re lucky, Dirty Dancing. The romantic theme even pervades the graffiti: LOVE AND AFFECTION – DAT IS DA REALLY DIRECTION.
But it’s not all pot-pourri and pansies: V. NISTELROOY 10 seems like a damn fine name for a fishmonger and there are a couple of barbers who purport to be able to turn their clients into Beckham or Ronaldo lookalikes, even though they are armed only with clippers and Vaseline. We eat at a restaurant which is able to reconcile support for Man U, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Booze is in short-supply on the island and, although we do spend an interesting night putting away overpriced Tuskers in the police canteen, our week in the archipelago could be seen as a form of detox.
There are two other towns on the island. Matondoni is famous for its dhow-making. Only here and in Zanzibar are the massive 40 foot seafaring craft built, in exactly the same way – mangrove wood for the frame, mahogany for the body, and shark-oil to keep it all watertight – as they have been for centuries. Nowadays, some tourists do visit Matondoni to see the process in action, but because it’s a 3 hour walk or a relatively expensive boat-trip to get there, it’s definitely the best place on the main island to see traditional Swahili culture.
Shela, whose inhabitants moved to Lamu from a nearby island a few centuries ago, is dangerously quaint. “Is Europe,” explained Mohammed. And it really is – almost every single old coral house has been bought by foreign investors and at best restored, at worst mutilated. This means that the people who used to live here have had to move, either to the dunes or to Lamu town. Walking through Shela’s streets is depressing. Not quite as depressing as Montecasino, but along those lines.
Another Mohammed helps us charter a dhow for a few days. The preamble is a slow and occasionally baffling experience, but eventually – about three days after negotiations began we are loading our stuff onto the craft and buying last-minute provisions. It isn’t either of the boats we had been assured it would be, and we’ve never clapped eyes on the skipper and his mate despite having been introduced to at least seven people claiming to hold these positions. Nothing new in Africa, though, and the price is more than right.
Neither of the guys is called Mohammed. Chinaboy looks and behaves like he’s had far too much marijuana in his lifetime, but his lethargy is made up for by Mbabe, the crewman-cum-human-dynamo. Mbabe is only twenty-two and he’s been working on the same boat since he was eleven. He leaps around the place, singing “We go Manda Toto, is very nice place,” as he adjusts the sail.
We spend the first night at Mtangawanda (literally ‘eyeshadow sand’) a black sandy beach, on Pate island. It’s a popular overnight stop for fishermen who ply their trade in the Ndau Channel. When we arrive, the boats have already returned from their morning’s business and the mood is relaxed: most of the guys don’t even leave their boats to cook ugali (pap) and smoke tsangu. We play a bit of Frisbee with some enthusiastic new apprentices.
That evening we walk an hour or so to get to Pate town. Situated at the apex of a mangrove channel which all but dries up at low tide, the town is a lobster- and crab-fishing port. As we approach the outskirts we start to gather an audience. Soon we have forty or fifty kids following us. One snotty-cheeked girl bursts into tears as soon as she sees my bearded visage…something which normally takes more than just one glance. Another kid is keen to practice his English: brandishing a mielie, he says, “This is maize,” at least 50 times. The streets are smaller and more dingy than those in Lamu, the buildings are more tumbledown, and dialectal Swahili is the only language in evidence. Chinaboy gives us a tour of the place and then we stop off at the general dealer to buy cokes, and a pack of Rooster cigarettes for Mbabe.
Next morning, after discovering that my boardshorts and mosquito net have been stolen from our tent while we were sleeping, we breakfast on doorstop slices of white bread and sweeter-than-Mary Poppins tea, and then…we wait. Our boat – almost certainly deliberately – has been beached by the tide and we will have to wait till the afternoon to set sail for fabled Manda Toto.
The afternoon’s voyage is surreal. The dhow is a primitive vessel, but the extreme manoeuvrability of its sail means that it is a highly efficient downwind craft. Upwind, however, it’s an entirely different story. Every time they tack, Chinaboy and Mbabe predict that it will be the last time. Every time, apart from the seventh, they are wrong. At another time, in another place, this may have been irritation; but here, now it becomes a supremely enjoyable pantomime. At one point, Mbabe, shrieking and giggling, is thrown by the force of the sail into the sea. And he doesn’t even mind us laughing at him.
When we get to Manda Toto it is dark and the surrealism continues…we eat Somali supa-ghetti (plain spaghetti prepared with half a bag sugar in the water) with our hands – one knife was the only cutlery they bought for the entire trip – and go to bed. Dawn breaks, rosy-fingered of course, and we see why Mbabe had been so excited about this particular island. Not even a kilometre long, the sand is white and the sea is blue and the palms do sway. A tall figure, complete with Masai spear, patrols the beach with his dog. A big white house dominates the far point. “What’s that?” I ask
“The owner of Tawakal bus is building house here, but is government land.”
“Why didn’t the government stop him?”
“He is rich man, he employ askari to watch for island.”
As the song says, Forget Norway…only in Kenya.

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