The Rasta did not turn up the next day for the trip to Manda Island – we were not surprised, we had already been warned by several people in town that he was 'unreliable'........ We hired Bonaventura and 'Tawhida' again. In the morning we visited Lamu town including the excellent museum housed in an old restored Lamu house that was once the British governor's residence. Outside are two large cannon beside a plaque announcing that they were used by the British to bomb the Sultan of Witu's palace in 1892. (The tiny town of Witu is on the mainland.)
The museum has a fine ethnographic section devoted to unique aspects of Lamu's island culture; the African love of music and rhythm has combined with religion in Lamu to produce one of the largest celebrations for the Prophet's moulid or birthday anywhere, attracting participants from all over the country and even from outside Kenya. It still dominates the calendar to this day, even if some other processions and celebrations which in the past were colorful and noisy affairs are dying out. A pre-Ramadan picnic called a mfungo was a big event in the community as was the Vugo, the procession through the streets of women taking the dowry to the bride's family. In Pate town I saw a very old woman with many piercings in her ears, as well as gold earplugs in her earlobes called kuti. And while this tradition has now died out completely, the museum has fine examples as well as silver earplugs called majasi, silver chains or zigagiya worn as armlets, which I had also seen in Pate, and small silver cases which held betel nut which was mixed with lime and tobacco. (On the other side of the Indian Ocean, this custom was much beloved by the Burmese in the past.) In an area devoted to traditional costume, one learns that while brides change their dresses frequently during the long celebrations, she always wears green - the color of Islam - to receive her guests for the first time. And that the kangas of Swahili women have a band of text just above the hem at the back which customarily are Swahili proverbs, but sometimes they boast very personal messages; in Zanzibar I was told that some allude to the wearer's prowess in the bedroom while others critique the behavior of other women.......
Traditional wooden lintel carvings from Lamu
Leaving the museum we strolled through Lamu to the Swahili House museum, a fine example of a wealthy latter-day Swahili house. The caretaker took us round; aside from the magnificent vidaka, the niched wall in the reception room, what was memorable was a small decorative niche next to the canopied bed which the caretaker explained was for the woman to put her earrings and jewelry as “it will hurt the man and is not allowed”.
On that exculpatory note we left and continued through the narrow alleys which all have shallow channels at the side to facilitate 'street cleaning', passing wondrous examples of the carved doors for which Lamu is so well-known.
We passed the Riyadha mosque which gives on to an open square where the Moulid festival takes place, down through the back streets to the fort which was completed in 1823.
We had come here to find the Lamu museum curator who was 'on his way', but shades of the Griana 'nee ha ha' or the Swahili 'Hikuna matata', a catchall phrase for everything from 'no problem' to 'tomorrow insh'allah', the curator never arrived. While waiting however I watched in amazement as groups of schoolchildren in their brightly-colored uniforms sat attentively on the floor in makeshift classes as the teacher wrote on the blackboard. There was not a murmur from them.
Wandering back along the waterfront we picked up Mohammed, an assistant at the museum who had agreed to come to Takwa with us. I think he felt sorry for me after Sketty related our tale of Pate and the 'vice president's palace'. Takwa is on the southern side of Manda island and although it was never a city state as was Manda town to the north of the island, there is a lot more of it left including a Friday Mosque, residential housing, the town wall with gatehouses, and a pillar tomb with an inscription.
It has an excellent defensive position; concealed between the Indian Ocean on one side and a narrow creek which can only be reached at high tide on the other, it is impossible to see from the shore of either due to high dunes and dense stands of mangrove swamp. Takwa, the word is a derivative of the Swahili word 'taka' meaning desire, was founded sometime during the 16th century and abandoned in the late 17th century. The island's population was never more than around 2500, slightly smaller than Pate and Siyu, and the people lived off the land, primarily growing maize and cassava, and fishing. As I had been told everywhere along the coast, the site was abandoned when the water supply dried up – it is true however that only two wells have been found thus far in the town and the water is salty.
We walked along the city walls still largely intact and standing about 10 feet high, past the Friday mosque. Nearby was an old cistern which still had the remains of a porcelain plate on the bottom, as well as concealed terracotta pipes -evidence of a relatively sophisticated water system. We ended up at the pillar tomb with its unusual inscription.
Inscription on Takwa pillar tomb
From Takwa we sailed to Shela, a 'Europeanized' enclave about a half-hour's walk along the waterfront from Lamu. Occupying a corner of the island, on the Indian Ocean side are miles of empty dune-backed sandy beaches. The old town, charming in a 'designer', pristinely-maintained way, was silent as a morgue because there are few locals living there now, gentrification and foreigners having priced them out, foreigners who live there only part of the year in many cases. An old mosque with a distinctive tapering, white-washed cylindrical minaret stood in the middle of town just feet from a beautiful large foreign-owned house.
Lamu not only has more and more tourists, Kenyans from other parts of the country are now moving here. Most are Kikuyu from the current president's tribe of whom many are Christian, and the island is changing to adapt. Churches of various denominations have been built to accommodate the new Christian population, and on the flip side (and as in Zanzibar), more young women are now sporting a burqa. The burqa in the Arab definition (as opposed to the Afghan version), is a piece of black cloth which covers the entire face leaving only the eyes visible; it is neither Koranic nor traditional in Muslim East Africa, so I wondered about this latest trend.
As we were leaving Pate the day before, Bonaventura had been asked if we could take two girls to Lamu; in their 20s they wore Islamic dress but their faces were uncovered, and they chattered away like parakeets to Sketty and Aloui the whole trip back to Lamu. On arrival I retrieved my bags and disembarked to find the two already on the quayside wearing sparkly black-sequinned burqas, which somewhat surprised me. (I am well used to the burqa living as I do in one of the most conservative of Arab countries, but local burqa-clad girls there would not be talking quite so freely to men they did not know.) I asked Sketty what this new phenomenon was all about but he did not really know, and I am sensitive about raising the question when I have not had a chance to establish a rapport with the wearer. Given the level of misunderstanding and occasional prurient interest in the subject in the Western media, they can understandably become defensive. Nonetheless the wearing of the burqa, hijab and hair-covering in general is now far more common than it was when I first started traveling and working in the Islamic world over thirty years ago, and there are many reasons for it which will be discussed in my eventual book about my journey.
On our arrival back in Lamu, Aloui said he was off 'to eat rice with Kanga” a Swahili expression meaning he was going to eat at home 'en famille'. Meanwhile like the proverbial bad penny, the Rasta was again hanging around. He wanted a cut of the fee I had paid Bonaventura on the grounds that we were his clients. Sketty quietly but firmly led him to understand that not having bothered to show up in the first place, he was getting nothing.
The next day I said goodbye to Sketty who had been a marvellous traveling companion and a modern-day dragoman - it would have been impossible for me to have achieved so much without him. Anyone traveling independently in Kenya who requires a driver can contact him at
The check-in counter Lamu Airport, Manda Island
I was flying with an excellent regional carrier called 540 whose passengers could take the local ferry to Manda island where the airport is located. The ferry left 15 minutes late because the engine was being tinkered with; bits of motor appeared to be changing places, and what looked like an oily black bicycle chain was being slowly wound around some cogs. Despite its great age, we arrived without incident. The airport is a thatched hut several hundred yards walk from a long wooden pier, fenced in by bougainvillea and flame-red poinsiana. When the plane landed, the noise startled a herd of gazelle grazing by the runway and sent them leaping elegantly across the tarmac ahead of the advancing aircraft. We took off ahead of schedule.