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.
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.
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’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.
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!)