Alleyways of Lamu: The Heart of Swahili Kenya

I love alleyways.  I’m not talking about the sketchy kind portrayed often in serial killer movies, but the kind of narrow pedestrian walkways that in the U.S. you might find a couple tables of a cute, hole-in-the wall café, or like the souqs in Morocco.  These are the places for pedestrians and stray animals, not vehicles.  When I traveled to Zanzibar back in the Peace Corps days, I was thrilled to find that Stone Town was a whole town of narrow alley-like streets that mazed throughout making it easy to get lost and easy to find adventure.  I would spend my days in the town just wandering and admiring the carved doors and Swahili architecture with the occasional stop at a street kabob stand.  So when I heard that Lamu had similar qualities, I knew I would love the place.  What I intended to do this time was learn a bit more than just wander and buy things.

Observing Lamu

Lamu, of course, is a tourist town.  However, I knew as we took the rickety dhow (boat) from the mainland jetty to Lamu, this was going to be an entirely unique experience.  First, I was lucky enough to have a companion, Cory, that speaks Kiswahili and is familiar with the culture.  But the mere fact that it was an 8-hour bus ride to the jetty from the nearest large city, Mombasa, gives it a more off-the-beaten track feel regardless of tourism being an essential component of Lamu economy. Zanzibar, although quaint and lovely in it’s own right, is just a two-hour ferry ride or 15-minute plane ride from the capital, Dar es Salaam making it quite accessible.

Floating towards Lamu, I kept my eyes set on the island to avoid the fact that our crowded dhow was leaning not-so-slightly the other direction as the old plastic canister serving as a gas tank sat precariously on top of the motor protector thingy.  We puttered through the water next to lush mangroves.  Upon rounding the corner, the mangroves disappeared into a smattering of large homes and then a large, open man-made beach in which Damaris – an employee from our hostel who met us at the jetty – claims the making of killed off all the mangroves from that area.  That said, it’s the beach that seems to be frequented more by the locals, although probably not as a sunbathing destination as the island town is mostly Muslim, rather a place to walk that’s away from town and not so touristy.

The Dhow's "Gas Tank"
The Dhow’s “Gas Tank”

Approaching Lamu from the water made me giddy with excitement.  The densely packed corral-stoned buildings stood welcoming us to the quaint little town.  After pushing our way through the beach boys trying to get tourists to follow them to one hostel or another, we disappeared into the alleys as Damaris led us to our guest house.  Although the proprietor, Arnold, a German man transplanted in Lamu, gave us a lengthy introduction to the town and many options for tours like dhow rides to other beaches on the archipelago and sunset tours, Cory and I opted for two days of unscheduled wandering through the alleyways of Lamu.

Other than one’s feet, the only mode of transportation allowed on Lamu are donkeys – of which you can find remnants (their poop) all over the place.  As you walk through the narrow streets of old town Lamu, the air is cooler.  Those without a donkey navigate the pathways over stray cats and the shallow open sewer system on either side, which could seem gross, but actually adds to the quaintness.  Besides, the donkey poop is what really stinks and from what I could tell, these street sewers don’t seem to include toilet water, if you know what I mean.

Approaching Lamu from the Water
Approaching Lamu from the Water

In a place like Lamu where day-to-day the donkey poop could get annoying, as a traveler, it only reminds me that I’m in a place entirely different from my own.  Dodging donkey doo and admiring the architecture brings me back to a time when Lamu was once one of the most important ports on the East African trade route.  You see this in the intricately carved doors, the coral stoned and mangrove timber buildings, and in some of the fancier digs, the Chinese porcelain embedded in the walls and floors.  These remnants of the past are examples of the time that brought about Swahili culture through trade and cultural interactions.

Carved Door of Lamu
Carved Door of Lamu

Kiswahili, primarily spoken on the coastal regions of Kenya and Tanzania (although also one of the official languages of both countries), demonstrates the mix of cultures of the region.  Derived from Arabic incorporating much of African bantu languages as well (even us Chichewa speakers can understand a few words because of those similarities).  I should note, that my travel companion regularly speaks Kiswahili to me at home, and I found on this trip that I did not pick any of it up to even have any kind of conversation aside from my halted greetings (“jambo, I mean, sijambo, I mean, habari yako”)*. But thanks to being a former british colony, Kenyans also speak English.  Plus, Cory’s language abilities gave us quite enough insider treatment to have some excellent conversations with people.

The Lamu Town Tour

I may have lied when I said we didn’t take any tours.  We took one tour, the Lamu town tour, which as Arnold, a self-professed guy who likes to go sans tour when traveling, says it’s definitely something he’d recommend.  If anything, it’d help us orient ourselves through the maze of narrow streets on our first day.  We got a lot more than a sense of direction, though.

Our guide, Abbas, gave us more of an insider’s view of the place and access to some of the buildings we never would’ve ventured in all by our lonesome.  We learned that around 60% of old town Lamu is owned by foreigners.  After hearing this, I started to see that many of the buildings in that part of town were guest houses.  Sadly, that seems to be the way of popular tourist destinations.  Lamu also being a world heritage site, any building or restoration must be within the guidelines of UNESCO, perhaps a barrier for the locals to keep those old Swahili buildings.

Rooftops of Lamu
Rooftops of Lamu

From my initial observation, Lamu seems more low-key about it’s tourist-ness than Zanzibar.  Of course Lamu has its share of tourist shops on its main strip and beach boys trying to sell you tours and boat parties to tourists, but everything seems to be a bit more hidden amidst the alleyways.  Part of it could be that we were there at the very beginning of tourist season and during Ramadan, so we saw fewer mzungu.  But old town Lamu was quieter than I imagined it to be.  Knowing that fewer locals owned the buildings in that area, though, I now have a better sense of why it seemed quieter at this time.  To find the daily hubbub, one needed to wander through the swahili section of town, Abbas told us.

The Modern Swahili Lamu

In the swahili section, the narrow alleyways opened up a bit more.  Still alleys, but wider, and louder.  The wider alleys also make for less protection from the sun, so it’s hotter here.  But it’s also more lively.  With kids playing games in the side streets, the locals doing their daily shopping in the large market and in the evenings after breaking the Ramadan fast they do their eating (if not at home during the holiday).  This is where we found the street food.  Every street meal comes with the risk of illness, but so does every meal abroad and as I saw someone say on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations once: street food is safer than being in a restaurant because you can see what they are doing to the food (or something along those lines).  So, we dined on $3 worth of deliciously marinated meat (nyama choma), chicken (kuku choma), chapati, and chips (street fries).

I live for food in places like the coast of Kenya where there’s a fusion of cultures in every meal.  In Lamu, the indian influence is brought out in the spices.  The meat was marinated in some amazing mix similar to garam masala and the chicken in tandoori seasoning.  Plus, the chapatis.  I love chapati.  These are not meals I can have at home, at least not in this way, and I cannot get enough of them when traveling.  No restaurant in the U.S.  – Kenyan, Indian or otherwise – provides the atmosphere that comes with picking out your meat from the grill and then eating it in a questionably hygienic seating area surrounded by the noise of Kenyan life.

Street Meet
Street Meat

Why I Wander the Alleys

So, this is what we did for two days, we wandered, we chatted, and we made new friends (specifically with a silversmith who deserves his own forthcoming blog post).  I’m not sad I missed the beaches or the massage (another option Arnold gave us).  I didn’t see all of what Lamu could offer a tourist in two days. All I could do was wander the streets and alleys marveling in the fact that I was not at home.  It’s walking aimlessly and admiring architecture and experiencing daily life of the locals that lead me to travel.  I travel to experience something utterly different than my own and Lamu couldn’t be further from my row house in Baltimore – and that’s why I loved it.

Alleys of Lamu
Alleys of Lamu

*The term jambo is typically used towards tourists.  By saying sijambo or habari yako, demonstrates that you’re a bit more than a tourist, although potentially risks someone speaking kiswahili to you, to which I would look at Cory imploringly.

Streets of Lamu
Streets of Lamu
Donkeys, Lamu's Transportation System
Donkeys, Lamu’s Transportation System
The Lamu Main Market
The Lamu Main Market
Lamu's dhows in low tide
Lamu’s dhows in low tide
Kids playing games in the Swahili section of town
Kids playing games in the Swahili section of town
Cory gazing longingly at the street food
Cory gazing longingly at the street food


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bermtopia says:

    Good point about the street food. Any thing cooked under flame can’t be all bad. Can it?

    1. Elizabeth D says:

      I suppose anywhere you risk getting sick. I’m happy telling myself that anything cooked under a flame can’t be too but if only to make myself feel better about eating it. It’s totally worth it to me!

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