Pate Island, Kenya
On arrival in Lamu a rasta guy hanging around the jetty called out a greeting and made to help with the bags. “I have two men with me, I don't need help”, I said, to no avail as he took the bag anyway. We plonked down in a cafe while we decided where to stay and what to do. It was early evening and as we had arrived much later than anticipated we were not able to organize the rest of the trip which required boat trips to Pate and Manda islands, and as we did not know what the options were we didn't know how many nights we were going to be where.
I walked to the Amu House, an old converted Swahili house, and took a room there for one night while Sketty and his brother tried to organize boats. Our problem was tides, public ferries which did not run on Fridays, lack of accommodation on Pate island, no knowledge of where exactly the sites were or how far they were from the coast, no transport on the island – minor things..... The rasta still hanging around for no reason whatsoever sat in on all of this offering his ten cents worth of suggestions until we agreed he would take us to Manda Island on Sunday in a speedboat. Then he asked for money.
Back on the waterfront for dinner a man stopped at our table having heard we were looking for a boat. He had the the sort of face that has a permanent smile and I instinctively liked his manner, so after a bit of negotiating I hired him to take us to Siyu and Pate town on Pate island. He went by the improbable name of Farid Buongiorno......The next day Sketty called the museum to try and find a guide for us, it transpired that the deputy at the Lamu museum lived in Faza at the northern end of Pate island and had just left for vacation on the ferry the day before. They would try to reach him and see if he had a guide for us. Around 1100 I set off in the little turtle boat with a team comprising Farid, his brother, 2 other crew members, Sketty and his brother. Into the channel, we hailed some fishing boats on their way back to Lamu with the catch of the day and bought fish for lunch and calamari for dinner. The crew lit a charcoal brazier cum barbecue on board on which they expertly grilled the fish, and prepared a delicious coconut milk curry sauce from scratch.
Coconuts are shredded using exactly the same device, a mbuzi, so accurately described by Ibn Battuta 700 years ago. It is a kind of stool with a protruding part with a saw-toothed ferrule at the end which shreds the flesh of the coconut which is then put into a fine palm-woven container called a kifumba, and squeezed until the milk comes out.
The Mbuzi in action
The weather, beautiful when we left, turned squally and we did not arrive on Pate Island until about 3 in the afternoon. Meanwhile we received several increasingly agitated calls from the deputy museum head asking where we were. When we finally got there a minor delegation was awaiting us. There had clearly been a lot of misunderstanding about my visit. The first was that he was under the impression we were arriving at about 1100 on a speedboat so had been waiting for ages, hence the perfectly understandable agitation, the second was that he had come to meet me personally because he was laboring under the illusion that I was a VIP of some sort. On ascertaining that I wasn't, he promptly disappeared leaving two guides. It was also evident that we needed somewhere to stay in Siyu as we would not have time to visit the town and nearby Shanga before nightfall. To top it all a heavy rainstorm had us rushing for cover. It was decided that we could stay in the chief's house - he was not there - so while we visited Siyu fort and the tombs, the crew trudged back the way we had come through the mangrove swamps to the boat to get the calamari to cook for dinner, along with everything else they needed, which they then lugged all the way back to the village.
The fort which was built by Omani Arabs in the 19th century was recently restored with funds provided by the US embassy in Nairobi. It was once surrounded by water but the tides have long receded and it now sits high and dry as a land-based relic. A walk through the village revealed dome-shaped tombs with large blank circles which had once held porcelain plates, pillar tombs, and overgrown cemeteries with grave markers in Arabic script. At dusk we went to our temporary home where a local Swahili four-poster bed had been made up for me complete with scattered jasmine flowers on the sheets and a mosquito net which did not however quite reach all the way down past the mattress, still - it was a kind gesture.
Domed tomb, Siyu
We barely slept a wink; for unknown reasons the donkeys, of which there are a considerable number as they are the only source of transportation aside from 6 motorcycles on the whole island, brayed, snorted and hee-hawed the whole night long. I have never wanted to shoot a donkey before but I might have been persuaded that night. Goats and sheep bleated and dogs barked and howled in chorus with the braying donkeys, and wind and rain blowing in through the slatted windows threw the too-short mosquito net in all directions leaving me more exposed than ever. The malaria-bearing anopheles mosquito is said by Africa hands to bite only between the hours of 2 and 6 in the morning – they are silent killers, mosquitoes that buzz do not carry malaria, so the only positive thing was that mosquitoes do not fly well in wind. Sketty and Aloui who were sleeping on mattresses on the floor next door along with half the crew, got up at dawn to pray – I heard them leave and come back and go back to bed to try and get some sleep, which was impossible.
The following morning, bleary-eyed, we all discussed the best course of action for the remainder of the day. It was decided that while we walked to Shanga, the crew would sail to Mtangawanda and wait for us there because the pattern of the tides at this time of year meant only a small window of opportunity for us to get in and out of Pate creek. That decided we set off for the 45 minute walk through coconut palm plantations to Shanga.
Beautifully carved mihrab of Shanga mosque
The name is a corruption of 'Shanghai' because the Chinese once traded here in the 14th century, and even now it is not unusual to see people with distinctively almond-shaped Asian eyes, and I was told that several 'Shanghai-Kenyans' have left to live and be educated in China. Believed to date back to the 10th century, Shanga is a lovely site set partially in mangrove swamps and partially in dense forest with several impressive ruins including one of the most beautifully carved mihrabs on the coast, the remains of a mosque, an impressive fluted pillar tomb and hundreds of lesser tombs within a large walled city. After a brisk walk back to Siyu and a cup of delicious ginger tea, we jumped on to the pre-arranged motorcycles to take us to Pate.
Arriving in Pate we came across a couple of tourists with a guide called Amr who was barefoot and tiny. It seemed we were to go with them even though it was coincidence that we had come across them at all. A nearby school was disgorging its occupants all of whom were noisily interested in us, and Amr started heading towards it. I had no desire to visit a school so I told the couple that I would wait for them. They said they had no desire to visit a school either. Why then were we going? Turning back towards the ruins of Pate it became blindingly obvious after about two seconds that Amr's English was not up to the task and that he knew little of substance about the site anyway.
'Female' mihrab, Great Mosque, Pate
Our first stop was the Great Mosque which had two mihrabs. He gave me the standard male, female mihrab explanation pointing out which was which. I asked him how he knew this – how had scholars determined which was which? Was the 'female mihrab' more decorated, more refined, smaller perhaps? Did they correspond to larger and smaller prayer halls? Amr did not understand the question so Sketty translated into Swahili to which he replied 'my father told me'. So I was in the process of asking Sketty to tell Amr to follow his original two charges who had long ago wandered off, when he announced in front of a large imposing ruin that “this is the vice-president's house”.
Vidaka, the niche wall in Swahili houses.
He meant the governor's palace because we were talking about an age long before there were presidents of any sort. I told Sketty I might strangle him if he did not go away. Sketty tactfully asked if there was perhaps another guide. There was – his brother who was currently in the mosque praying. Could he perchance be persuaded to take us round the ruins afterwards? He could. We started over at the Great Mosque with the two mihrabs. This time I was told they represented the Friday mihrab and 'the other days of the week' mihrab. I restrained myself from asking any questions as it was quite clear no sensible information would be forthcoming and indeed he was almost as bad as Amr though he did have shoes.
I did not like Pate town. True - I was irritable with the hapless Amr and his shod brother, but quite aside from this the town itself was destitute and listless – the energy seemed to have been sucked out of it. The beach was filthy with debris, and aside from a few men hammering away at distressed sailboats nobody seemed to do anything. For lunch we ordered chapattis and beans in a grubby cafe which was quite inedible, the children were ragged and ill-mannered, and the people unfriendly. Pate town is divided in two parts; on the other side of town, the 'Omani' side, live the descendants of the Nabahani Arabs who came here sometime around the 13th century and stayed as ruling sultans until their defeat by Lamu in 1812. Their streets were clean and their houses better maintained but Siyu was a much nicer place all round. It was cleaner, the people friendly, there were still signs of some of the industry for which it had been known in the past such as wood carving and leather sandal making, men worked in the plantations, children learned English and Swahili at school, and Arabic at the madrasa, there was even a kindergarten – in short the community was active. As for Pate I could not wait to leave, so it was all the more ironic that I got stuck here. The crew had not followed directions and had decided to come to Pate to fetch us. This was a well-intentioned but bad move as the wind picked up again and they had to sail up a narrow channel against it, so they did not arrive until late afternoon.
Domed Tomb, Pate
We were just about to turn around to sail back to Lamu when the wind turned very gusty, it began to rain heavily and the sky darkened ominously - we decided we had better stay where we were. The tide then receded as had been loudly predicted and we were now immobile. This was very bad news because there was nothing to do, nowhere to stay, no electricity to charge cameras, I did not have a book with me in the interests of traveling light, and Farid chose this moment to announce that we had the choice of leaving at 4:00 or 10:00 am the following day. Regardless of his skill as a captain and navigator, I was reluctant to leave in total darkness given lurking coral reefs, but more pertinently I was surprised - how many high tides were there in any 24-hour period? How come the boats had sailed off between 1:00 and 3:00 pm today? If there was a high tide at 10:00am, how could there be another one four hours later. Oddly, nobody paid any attention to this most astute observation - a pity as it turned out because I was right. At 10:00 the following morning there was mud where there should have been a waterway, as far as the eye could see. It was obvious we were going nowhere for the next several hours. I was now exceedingly grumpy because just as it is true that time flies when you're having fun, conversely never does it pass more slowly than when you are waiting for something in less than agreeable circumstances. I practically willed the tide to turn. The night had not been bad spent in what could have been a rather nice guesthouse, but lack of money and patronage meant that maintenance had been deferred and it was falling to bits. I declined to sleep in the room which was ghastly, and elected instead to sleep on the huge open verandah under the thatched roof. Only in the morning did I notice high up above my head the dessicated carcasses of bats. I slept on a Swahili bed, not the four-poster kind but the charpoy-style woven bed which was quite comfortable or would have been had the mattress not contained fleas. I was under a mosquito net that this time fortunately went all the way to the floor. The crew having very politely asked if I would mind if they all slept up on the verandah too had parked themselves onto flimsy mattresses on the floor at the other end and promptly gone to sleep.
Around lunchtime the crew started to prepare lunch but this time I did not proffer opinions, “We are not eating here, we will eat on board. I want to leave here at the first possible minute so let's get the boat loaded now.” Sketty then announced that he had to go pray first – it reminded me of Ibn Battuta's tale of woe when he was in Calicut - he had gone ashore to pray for a safe journey only to come back to find his junks had been destroyed in a freak storm; his goods, belongings and concubines scattered to the four winds. I suggested he add a prayer for our journey, and I gave Buongiorno a new name – in light of our adventure in Pate, he had gone from the Italian to the Spanish and was now Bonaventura.
En route to Pate; one of only 6 motorcycles on the island