The Ambassador of Lamu

Although it’s the goal, it’s not incredibly often during my travels that I connect deeply with locals unless otherwise acquainted (e.g. mutual friends, through an organization/volunteering, etc.).  This happens even less so in a place where I am an obvious tourist.  However, on this last trip to Lamu, Cory and I were lucky enough to come across such a connection as we wandered the narrow streets of Lamu.

This was Cory’s third visit to Lamu – nine or so years after the last time.  Although he didn’t mention it to me at the time, he had unconsciously been searching for a particular silversmith shop he had happened upon the last time he was there.  We walked into one on the main street with several showcases with a number of rings and earrings with swahili designs.  He also had a case of colorful porcelain pieces made into rings and pendants.  I quietly browsed as we eavesdropped on a European woman bargaining aggressively with the shopkeeper.  I’m sure I’ve done the same thing in the past, but both the woman and the shopkeeper annoyed me, especially when the woman said “I have bought silver all over the world, I know the real cost”  (This was that period in the trip where I was learning a bit about my current feelings of bargaining.  So, I rolled my eyes and we headed out the door, I could come back and buy jewelry later.

Several stores down, though, we came across another, somewhat more modest silversmith shop.  We peeked in, and although it didn’t seem to have the large stock of silver jewelry like the other one, there was certainly more character with stuff pasted up all over the walls.  Plus, the proprietor, who would soon become the best host ever, had popped up from his perch outside and welcomed us in.

SlimsShop

In any tourist spot, I’m always a little bit weary of potentially pushy shopkeepers.  But, there was clearly a sense of pride for his handiwork with this guy, Slim the Silversmith, a tall, handsome Muslim man in his fifties.  Slim’s brother is the other silversmith in town, although Slim claims that he was the first to come up with the signature porcelain pendants made from Chinese porcelain once found in the old swahili houses in Lamu.  After about five minutes of him telling us about his pieces, Cory noted that he had visited the shop nine years before.  Immediately, we were offered a discount (no bargaining with this guy) and a string of stories and that led to the highlight of our visit to Lamu.

Slim's Signature Pendants
Slim’s Signature Pendants

On this first visit, we chatted with Slim for almost an hour.  Really, we were listening to his stories.  Apparently Jude Law visited his shop once and bought 30 pendants.  Proof was the signed note in Slim’s expanding visitor’s book.  Clearly Slim had not only made an impression on us and Jude Law, but countless other visitors to Lamu.  We heard about his son who is studying in Ukraine (upon telling us this he donned the “Russian hat” his son brought back to him), that Slim loves antiques, he loves Queen Elizabeth, and that the only item he has from his deceased father is his passport which he showed us.  Before we left that day, though, Slim gave me a scarf he had behind his counter, bought us fried potatoes with pili-pili hot sauce (despite him fasting for Ramadan), and said that we made his day.  At that point, Cory and I knew we’d definitely be back the next day to buy more pendants.

On day two, Slim welcomed us in like we were old friends.  Almost immediately, he took me down the street where he bought us halwa, a sweet cooked jelly with spices, that he intended for us to eat with the coffee he cooked for us.  He boasted the day before about his coffee, and although he couldn’t partake himself due to fasting, he made it for us by cooking it with fresh ginger over his silversmith torch.  We sat with him for another hour and a half sipping the coffee and eating the halwa listening to more stories.  His wife – his third marriage – was his first girlfriend prior to the two previous wives. We noted that Slim doesn’t practice polygamy – common in this part of Kenya.  Donkeys and dolphins are his favorite animals.  Donkeys because they built Lamu and dolphins, well, because I assume that they’re just cool (the latter reason is my interpretation).  A number of Slim’s stories were based around his encounters with other travelers: the British man he once loaned 11,000 shillings as the ATMs were all down then once returned years later to shower more than what he was owed; the hippy family 25 years ago to whom he gave a simple chain bracelet who returned 15 years later to find him still in his shop.

Slim "cooking" us coffee
Slim “cooking” us coffee

Slim’s stories were stream of consciousness.  I believed everything the man said, mainly because the graciousness and genuineness he exuded was enough to account for the truth.  Because his wife was away, he ate post-fast Ramadan meals with extended family, but otherwise, he told us, he would invite us over for a meal.  We were disappointed we couldn’t spend the rest of the evening with him, but we left knowing he made our trip.

Halwa and coffee with Slim
Halwa and coffee with Slim

I loved Lamu, the history and the architecture.  I loved wandering the streets.  But what made it for us was the simple little connection with a man who effortlessly assumes the unofficial post as a tourist’s ambassador of Lamu.  If you ever make it to Lamu, I urge you to look for Slim, he will doubtless shower you with generosity and kindness like he did us.

All B/W photos by Cory (his favorite setting!)

Slim the Silversmith: Ambassador of Lamu
Slim the Silversmith: Ambassador of Lamu
Slim showing us his silversmithing skills
Slim showing us his silversmithing skills
Slim with a photo of his wife telling us stories
Slim with a photo of his wife telling us stories
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10 Comments Add yours

  1. What a lovely piece of writing. I, myself own some pieces of jewellery from Slim’s shop that I treasure as a beautiful reminder of my stay in Lamu. He certainly is a great ambassador!

    1. Elizabeth D says:

      I love that you met Slim, too! I imagine there are a lot of people out there with similar stories of meeting Slim.

      1. I am sure there are. I just love how these threads connect complete strangers from far-flung places with one another.

  2. jw says:

    I stumbled across your 2 posts about Lamu, as I’m currently researching and planning a trip to Kenya this fall. I was originally drawn to zanzibar for all the same reasons that Lamu speaks to me. alas, some recent activities in zanzibar made me give pause then look for other similar places and i discovered Lamu. You’ve really illustrated exactly what I’m looking for — although I do want to squeeze in some sunbathing/beach time 🙂

    I was thinking of going for Sunday – Friday .. seems like enough time to soak things in?

    I think I’m in for a treat.

    1. Elizabeth D says:

      Hi JW, that’s great you are planning a trip to Lamu! It was really wonderful and a week is definitely more than enough. We only spent a few days there but didn’t have enough time to spend some time on the beach.

      I do know that security alerts in all of Kenya are pretty high right now, esp. since the Westgate Mall attacks last year. We traveled to Kenya a few months before that happened. Lamu itself should be fine, but it is very close to the border of Somalia and there have been some isolated incidents in the past few years. That said, if you’re worried about security, you should definitely consider these issues. I heard this NPR story a couple days ago actually (http://www.npr.org/2014/05/18/313714310/nairobi-bombings-are-a-sign-of-spreading-militant-influence) and wondered whether if we were going this summer if we would’ve planned anything differently as some airlines are even canceling flights to Mombasa which is your launching off point for Lamu.

      I believe Tanzania as a whole is in a better state of affairs. I haven’t heard of incidents in Zanzibar, but given the state Kenya is in right now, if you’re choosing between the two countries, I would probably go with Tanzania. I’m curious, what are the issues you’ve heard of in Zanzibar?

      1. kapshurew says:

        Hi thanks for replying back so quickly. I ran across this recent article in GQ/UK http://goo.gl/tvIXuG, plus the acid attacks on the British girls (although they were there teaching English, so maybe that’s congruent with what you see in other areas such as Afghanistan, etc).

        I certainly am more intrigued with the cultural experience that Zanzibar and Luma offer versus the Seychelles, but I’m starting to wonder.

        I am often more in favor of staying put in an area and getting entrenched to know a place, versus fly-by-night, 2 days here, 2 days there, etc.. but maybe I should try and just do 2-3 days in both Luma and ZNZ. Maybe I can offset the costs of the air tickets back and forth b/t the islands and NBO by staying in some more affordable lodging in both Luma and Zanzibar.

        Do you and your travel companion from Luma have your pictures posted anywhere else? I also enjoy shooting a lot of black & white and have found myself already day dreaming of wandering the alleys & exploring.

      2. Elizabeth D says:

        I agree that staying in one place is the best option. I’ve opted for “slow travel” in the past few years. My recommendation is to pick a place and stay there rather than going to all three, but that depends on how much time you have. Lamu is about an 8-hour bumpy bus ride from Mombasa, but Zanzibar is only a couple hour ferry from Dar es Salaam, so you’d spend a lot less time in transport if you go there.

        On this trip in particular, we spent a week in Malawi (where I did Peace Corps) and a week in Kenya (where my fiance did Peace Corps). We agreed that one week in each place was WAY too short. You could easily spend one week (or more!) in Zanzibar or Lamu respectively.

        I have some photos on the blog’s facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.701237516569891.1073741831.622725284421115&type=3.

        Thanks for sharing the info on what’s been going on in Zanzibar. It sounds like there are similar concerns all over the coast. When I was in Zanzibar, I honestly felt very safe. Like with any tourist destination, there are necessary precautions to take. That said, my last trip to Zanzibar was around 8 years ago, so things very well could have changed. If you go to either, definitely keep abreast of the warnings.

        Enjoy the trip!

  3. kapshure says:

    Honestly, I would rather go to Lamu, but again, current political climate, and its proximity to Somalia border is making me think twice. Lamu just seems far more laid back than ZNZ. Nevertheless, enjoyed the photos!

    1. Elizabeth D says:

      Completely understand! The town is definitely more laid back, but once you get to the beaches in Zanzibar, it’s very chill. Good luck with the trip and enjoy!

  4. Mohamed Ali Amin says:

    Long live my cousine slim, thanks god we are jewelry. As well as my dad my he rest in peace Mohamed, and my grand dad swaleh Badaoud to my you live with there experience mr slim.

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