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Lazy days in Lamu



Lamu is one of those places that have seduced travelers for years. Its name evokes images of an idyllic island trapped in another century, where time moves to ancient rhythms. Lamu has many faces, however, which is something I realized only with time.

The bus ride from Mombasa was hot and crowded, in line with African mentality – where you can fit twenty, you can fit forty – and then we had to board a ferry to reach the island. As we got closer I stepped over people to get to the edge of the boat, where I could see the wide waterfront street lined with tourist shops and restaurants and people absorbed in their daily dramas. White houses with roofs of dried palm leaves baked under the sun, with flowering vines creeping up the walls showing off their scandalous colors. In contrast to the matatus on Mombasa’s Digo Road, it looked like this town was moving in slow motion.

I meant to stay a week. A month later I was working and couldn’t imagine leaving; I knew where to buy the cheapest goat meat and which place made the best Swahili pizza.

Waking up every morning in Lamu was like reaching a high. It is a magical place, charged with mysterious energy. Dawn arrived swiftly, with light filling the sky over the sea, lending everything a dusty gray-blue film until the sun rose and sharpened all the corners. By eight a.m., hours after the town had awoken, I would be sweating under my mosquito net. The narrow streets were full of sounds that wafted up to me through my open windows.
There are no glass windows in Lamu, nothing to keep the outside from intruding up the bougainvillea into the cooler interiors of the houses. Cats’ meowing and donkeys’ braying became the unconscious background to which I fell asleep and woke up.

The waterfront was always alive with activity. Sweating men filled and emptied dhows, those beautiful Arab sailing boats, carried sacks of cement, pulled at ropes, shouting and joking and fighting with each other in their colorful Swahili. Donkeys congregated outside the post office, their owner’s initials branded into their necks. They were never tied up; they knew their way home, although the rebel ones, I was told, would disappear for weeks at a time in the coconut fields in the center of the island.

The waterfront was also where the illiterate “beach boys,” or touts, made their rounds, lying in wait for the tourists and disconcerting them by greeting them in foreign languages until they hit the right one: “Jambo sista! Ciao bella! Where you coming from? Italiana? Qué tal? Muy bien. Bonjour! Lamu paradise! Hakuna matata! What about dhow ride today? Good price for you because you’re my friend.” They always had something to sell – hotels, trips to the islands, bogus tours, donkey rides, handicrafts. They somehow managed to be completely lethargic and money-driven at the same time. Being a mzungu – a white foreigner – in Lamu meant getting bothered and unwillingly accompanied by beach boys at some time or another. I made a point early on to ignore the more insistent ones, and I had become such a familiar face around town, even though they didn’t know what I was doing there, that they left me alone, although some found it irresistible to greet me in Japanese.

Walking along the waterfront or the main street that ran parallel to it, children would stare at me and say “Mchina!” and the beach boys would launch into their favorite Japanese greetings: “Konnichiwa!” “Yokoso!” I only found much later “Ohayou!” meant “How are you?” in Japanese, and wasn’t their way of guessing where I was from in the States.

The main street wound its way from one side of town to the other, and everyone walked through it several times a day, sometimes single file to give donkeys the right of way, as their owners clicked and whistled instructions to them. There were cheap places to eat and have a fruit shake, Coconut Juice Garden, New Star Restaurant, Bosnia Café, and that dark nameless hole-in-the-wall whose owner used scraps of newspaper to add up what you had consumed. Guesthouses hung their signs from the two sides of the street, the local crazies wandered around half-naked and toothless, and dealers peddled their miraa, Kenya’s national drug. The main street opened into the square, the heart of Lamu, where two huge trees circled by cement benches provided respite for old and young. Here people bumped into to each other and stopped to talk, children ran around in the shade, and men pushed wheelbarrows in every direction.

Lamu is about 95% Muslim, and five times a day the mournful singing from the mosques calls the faithful to drop what they’re doing and reassert their faith. You always know what time it is when you see the slippers in a messy heap on the mosque steps, and you can have a brief glimpse inside of the kofia- and kanzu-clad men praying and kneeling. The women float gracefully in their buibuis, traditional black robes that cover them from head to toe, sometimes even their faces, depending on their mood. At first I thought that a pair of eyes peering out of all that black cloth represented a more conservative girl, or one with a stricter husband, but everyone assured me it was purely their own decision. I soon realized that most of the women who covered their faces were the younger ones, often using special buibuis with lace and glittery beads. In a society where no skin is allowed, girls invent ways to flirt by surrounding their eyes in tantalizing shimmering cloth.

From the rooftop of Kilimanjaro Lodge, I would watch the little boys dressed in white on their way to school, teenage girls gossiping, and women hanging clothes to dry on the neighboring roofs.

Just five percent of Lamu’s residents are Christian, mostly Kenyans from up-country. From time to time the sleepy square fills with the singing and dancing of a Christian revival, giving the place the feel of an outdoor Broadway musical, with coconut sellers and barefoot kids part of the scenery.

Lamu’s most endearing characteristic might be its lack of cars; its streets are much too narrow and winding to accommodate for anything but donkeys and people. The one car on the island belongs to the District Commissioner and is only used for unnecessarily driving up and down the waterfront. Donkeys and dhows remain the preferred mode of transport. Children play on the streets with their medieval toys, rolling metal rings with wires among the human traffic. The lack of cars gives Lamu its time-warp atmosphere; there are no paved roads, no traffic lights. It is a town built on top of sand and dirt. Sometimes when I had to rush to the polytechnic school where I had started teaching, the men resting in the shade of doorways and trees would call out to me: “Pole pole! Lamu hakuna haraka!” – “Slow down! There’s no hurry in Lamu!”

For them there never was any hurry: women would stand in the market all day waiting to sell their fruits and vegetables, while their dirt-smudged children would climb over and under the tables; the old men in the plaza would chat under the trees until it was time to pray again; the beach boys would idly smoke their singly-bought cigarettes, moving only when the sight of mzungu skin woke them from their trance; and the waiters at New Star would take your order and then disappear into the kitchen for several hours.

This laid-back attitude caused me many frustrations and it pervaded every aspect of life. But gradually I fell into the rhythm and accepted it, the way I accepted the occasional electricity failures, the water shortages, and the violent downpours during rainy season. After a while I realized I had stopped counting time in hours and minutes, but by the sun and moon and when mango season would start again. I had gotten a volunteer job at the polytechnic through sheer stubbornness. I knew right away that I wanted to stay in Lamu for a few months, so I decided to find volunteer work that would let me do something useful while giving me a reason to stay. My search started when I went to one of the two clinics in town to sell my malaria pills. Dr. Rodger’s clinic was on the waterfront, behind some heaps of dirt where donkeys regularly milled around. A hand-lettered sign on the main road pointed the way down an alley to the clinic. Inside there was a waiting room often crowded with women and children. In most cases Dr. Rodgers was the only man to have seen these women besides their husbands. On the wall was a poster of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, shaking hands with the present President Moi, saying, “Take care of our nation.”

I entered the office. Behind a desk sat a tall lanky man with a huge smile that lit up the small room. He stood up and we shook hands. “Please, take a seat.” He spoke excellent English; I found out later he was from Kisumu, in the west of Kenya.

“How are you liking Lamu? Have you been here long?” Africans never launch right into a conversation. Small talk is a crucial part of personal relations, and you’re never supposed to answer negatively.

“I love it here,” I said truthfully. “I spent almost four months working in Mombasa and I ended up hating that city. All the matatus, the traffic – it was too much.” We talked about Mombasa, Lamu, Swahili, and his kids before we got down to business. “I want to sell my Lariam pills. I stopped taking them after three months because they were giving me nightmares. Do you think you could buy them? I’m a little short of money.” Dr. Rodgers’ laugh was infectious. “You’re not scared of getting malaria?” “Not really, not anymore. Africans get it all the time. You get sick, go to the doctor, get an injection and some pills and then it’s over. For you it’s like the flu, isn’t it?” “It’s very common. We Africans don’t use antimalarial pills. That’s only for mzungus.” “So you don’t know anyone who could use these pills?” I pulled out the boxes and laid them on the desk. Dr. Rodgers considered for a moment and then agreed to buy them, although he would only give me enough for a few good meals.

The deal made, I asked if he knew if there were any volunteers or humanitarian organizations that I might be able to work with. He knew a Canadian VSO volunteer, Lisa Klein, who worked with a women’s group, and promised to take me to her house. Lisa sent me to another volunteer, who told me to visit the curator of the museum, who was out of town but whose secretary directed me to the boys’ secondary school, whose headmaster sent me to the Department of Education, where the District Education Officer sent me to Department of Social Services.

It went on like this for a month. Everyone was interested and a bit surprised that I was willing to work for free, but they were too afraid to let me work without a working permit. Getting one involved a trip to Nairobi, possibly a bribe, and a few months’ wait. So they sent me around in circles, telling me they first had to talk with one person and then another, and the key person was always in Mombasa or Nairobi.

The good thing was that I was meeting people. One week it seemed that I would finally be able to start a youth group with the local soccer team, the Shella Super Stars, and never mind that some of them were older than me. However, the coach wasn’t the one who could make that decision, and Mr. Mwatela from Social Services was avoiding me, so that idea died, along with the tutoring, handicraft cooperatives, and business classes, all because no one was able to tell me yes or no.

By this time I knew half of Lamu. I was going to the Super Stars’ practices, complaining to Dr. Rodgers, and coming home to find three kids waiting for me for help with their homework. Someone finally pointed me in the direction of the polytechnic school. I visited it with my proposal and resume in hand, considering it my last hope.

There were three buildings, which the sign at the entrance said were built by a German aid organization, where carpentry, dressmaking, typing, and computer classes were held. Maryam, the head of the computer department, gave me a tour of the place. For most students the polytechnic was their only hope for a job in the future. The carpentry teacher showed me how they made traditional beds, doors, and cabinets. The students looked up curiously from their tools and machines. The three computer teachers, all surprisingly women, were enthusiastic about my volunteering at the school. “Mr. Mwangi is in Nairobi, but he will come back on Monday.” Mr. Mwangi was the manager, and of course, he was out of town. It took weeks of vacillating on Mr. Mwangi’s side, and threats of leaving on mine, and many strings pulled by various people who later became friends, but they finally let me start working. Soon after that, the chairman of the polytechnic arranged for me to stay for free at the Stone House, one of Lamu’s nicest hotels. I felt like I was living in the lap of luxury, with free soap and toilet paper and a friendly staff that let me use the restaurant kitchen.

My routine consisted of teaching two classes a day, at ten at the morning and six in the evening. Teaching Word and Excel in a town where the majority of the population didn’t have running water was a contradiction, but Africa was full of them. The computer room was unadorned except for two long wooden tables where ten computers sat side by side, and a blackboard but usually no chalk. My first day I was introduced to two students, Salim and Christine, who were finishing up Word. According to Maryam, they would be ready to take the final exam in a few weeks. They still didn’t know how to save a file or use a mouse. They never asked questions or indicated that they understood what I was saying. The Kenyan education system had taught them to shut up and memorize useless information. I spent many hours sweating in that stuffy room, inventing exercises and exams as I went along.

Dismus, my evening student, was much easier to teach. We quickly moved from Word to Excel, always joking and exchanging tidbits of our lives during lessons. He was from up-country, and had been transferred to Lamu to study the ocean tides. He was the kind of Kenyan I grew to respect: hardworking, intelligent, and motivated. He was one of very few who knew something about politics and wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions. After every class, he would shake my hand and say “Asante sana, mwalimu” – “Thanks a lot, teacher.” Teachers are regarded very highly in Africa, and I always had to hide a grin when people in the street called me mwalimu.

Working at the polytechnic magnified the cultural differences between the Kenyans and me. They didn’t see me as a tourist, but I was far from being one of them, no matter how much ugali I ate with my hand or how much Swahili I spoke. I think the other teachers were bewildered by this girl who let soccer players cut her hair, smoked Embassy Lights with her tea, and came to work in a T-shirt and kanga, those colorful sarongs that African women use for everything. But working there privileged me with the chance to really live in this corner of Kenya and to suspend my reality – that of a wandering backpacker – and step into another – one that for these people was simply everyday life.
My days were a sum of little moments that were all shaped by the place. No where else but Lamu could I buy samosas and bajias on the street from little girls who would hold out the snacks and say “Shilingi moja.” No where else could I joke at the Bosnia Café with Champion, the Bob Marley wannabe, or get invited to eat pilau by the ancient blue-eyed store-keeper who I never saw outside the tiny space behind his counter and who asked me three times a day how I liked Lamu. It was where I learned to carry a flashlight at night to avoid the donkey droppings in case the electricity got cut off, where the Big Shop had only two aisles of merchandise, and where the ambulance was a wheelbarrow.

It was a place that kept surprising me with what hid underneath the surface: buibui-clad Muslim prostitutes, the crazy homeless residents who never starved, the beach boys who told tourists everyday “Lamu hakuna matata. Lamu paradise!” and whose dream included a mzungu and a ticket out of Africa. The Indian Ocean taught me new meanings of the word blue. The channel in front of the waterfront was dirty and had no beach, although that didn’t deter the local kids trying to escape the midday sun or the hungry donkeys looking for scraps of garbage.

It was a hot forty-five minute walk to the quiet village of Shella. The beach there was spectacular and uncrowded, and it always looked different depending on the tide. Across the channel was Manda Island, but if you walked further down the beach, as I always did, the channel opened into the ocean, and there I would sit for hours watching the waves. Beach boys sauntered between Lamu and Shella, renting windsurfing gear at the expensive Peponi Hotel and selling massages along the beach. “You want a massage today?” they would ask the girls, brandishing their little bottles of coconut oil. “My grandmother taught me good massage. They call me the medicine man, you know?” There was one who made his living selling sodas and samosas to thirsty sun-worshippers at inflated prices, and another who spoke Italian with a Milanese accent.

When the tide was low, it seemed possible to walk all the way to India, picking up hundreds of fragile “sand dollar” shells along the way. Some days the tide would rise within an hour, eating up the beach, and making it necessary to go over the sand dunes behind the beach and then take the forested back roads to return to Lamu. It was possible to take a dhow or a donkey, but I loved to walk, because every few minutes I would greet someone I knew.

Kenyans take greetings very seriously, and in Swahili they’re endless. At least once a day, I would bump into one of the Super Stars, or the Indian guy who sold me rice, or the secondary school boys, or the varied and bizarre expats who called Lamu home. In line with Kenyan formality, every time I saw a familiar face, we’d do the obligatory handshake and go into the greetings: “Mambo, Shirley!” “Poa, poa. Habari ya asubuhi?” “Mzuri sana. Umelalaje?” “Fofofo! Habari kutoka juzi?” “Salama tu. Habari ya kazi?” “Siyo mbaya. Unaenda wapi?” “Sasa naenda kufanya mazoezi. Na wewe?” “Naenda Shella niogelee kidogo.” “Haya. Tutaonana baadaye.” “Mungu akipenda.” The word habari – literally, news – could be combined with anything to form a variation of “How are you?”: how are you today, how’s it at home, how did you sleep, how did you wake up, how was your trip, do you have any problems, how are you since yesterday…. The first five minutes of any conversation consisted of greetings that got steadily more specific, after which if you were just passing, you could say goodbye.

Swahili was just beginning to roll comfortably off my tongue and I reveled in any chance to practice it. I turned bargaining into an art form. With a flirtatious or conspiratorial “Ah, Bwana, punguza kidogo, tafadhali,” I would drive down the prices of everything from bananas to kangas.

Lamu was a haven for expats. Some had houses in town or in Shella but just spent a few months a year there. The few who lived full-time in Lamu formed a tight group and probably would never have gotten along back home.

First there was Carmen. I met her one day as I was trying to exchange a book at a stall on the waterfront. “Lugha gani hii?” the fat woman who owned the stall asked me, suspiciously eyeing at my Isabel Allende novel. She was sitting on the table where her tattered books were displayed, passed down by anonymous travelers whom I suddenly felt closer to: they also had dealt with this woman. “Ni KiSpanish. Ni kitabu kizuri sana,” I pleaded. I had read El Plan Infinito five times and no one wanted to buy it. Books in Italian, maybe, they all said, but hardly any Spanish people came to town. “Quieres cambiar ese libro? Yo tengo un montón en mi casa.” The voice came from behind me; it was the first time I had heard Spanish since I left New York. I spun around to find a bent little woman beaming at me. I had seen her before, hobbling slowly down the main street, leaning on the arm of a young local man. We left the fat lady with her books and made our way to Bush Garden. After our third tea, we had exchanged the summaries of our lives. She had moved to Lamu almost ten years earlier. “You see, I walk very badly. I couldn’t stand Madrid; I wanted a place without cars. So I came to Lamu.” She smiled sweetly, and I wondered how a woman of her generation had found the strength to leave the comfort and safety of the First World.

Carmen went to Bush Garden the same time every afternoon. I would find her sitting at the same table, her gray hair in the habitual bun, a book lying forgotten on her lap, watching the ocean. Sometimes she seemed melancholy; I don’t know if she thought about her family back in Spain, or her husband who had died years ago, or her younger days in Brazil and France. Her eyes would light up when she saw me. “Chinita!” she would exclaim, squinting through her glasses and giving me a kiss. She was “Mama Carmen” to the beach boys. She spoke bad English and very little Swahili, but everyone loved her.

Sometimes her best friend Inge would pass by on her way from or to the post office. She would read us letters from Germany and show us the seeds her sister had sent her. Inge had married a local. He died in a freak accident, leaving Inge to deal with his first wife’s demands for money. Inge stayed in Lamu, unable to re-enter European life after so many years in Africa. Carmen called her a saint, and I soon came to regard both of them that way. Inge always gave me fresh herbs from her garden and fresh towels from her washing machine (she knew how much I missed that clean smell); Carmen kept me supplied with Lorca, García Márquez, and Sepúlveda.

One week, I was more busy than usual, making exams at the school and tutoring English and math to kids, so when the coach of the Super Stars invited me to watch the team play in Kizingitini that weekend, I considered it a little vacation.

Kizingitini is a village on the island of Faza, several hours from Lamu. I found out quickly why my Lonely Planet guide didn’t mention it. After more than five hours on an inhumanely crowded boat, being spied at by women from behind their buibuis, I was more than ready to reach the island. The sun was rushing toward the horizon, streaking the sky with reds and oranges, and through the haze I saw the mud and stick houses of the villagers, the palm trees … and then a huge crowd gathered at the pier. It looked as if the entire village had come to watch the most exciting event of the day: our arrival. When they spotted me, the children began to shout in frenzy: “China! China! China!”

I jumped off the boat, and suddenly they surrounded me, hundreds of children with inflated bellies staring at the first Asian face they had ever seen. Their shouts rose in volume and insistence and I wondered if I should lift my hands like the Pope and make a speech. The Super Stars opened their way through the throng and I followed them, the children trailing behind me.

In the tropics, the sun goes down in fifteen minutes, and by the time we reached the house where we would be living, it was pitch black. Kizingitini has no electricity, no running water, no toilets, no toilet paper, no forks, no spoons, no sandy beaches, and no tourists. I was one of the first foreigners to reach the island and probably the first to visit with the Super Stars, who were celebrities themselves and sent the local kids on errands. In a matter of minutes the island was abuzz with the news that a mzungu was among them. Children came to our house with messages from their families: they wanted to see me. The women of the village opened their doors to me, all anxious to touch my hair and ask me where my husband was and let me hold their babies.

That night I ate ugali and fish with the Super Stars around the light of a kerosene lamp, drank spicy chai and waited for the moon to rise. The children never left my side; everything I did was worthy of their attention. Rural Africans have no concept of personal space; they never grow tired of watching you. The Super Stars insisted that I sleep in one of the villager’s houses; I would have my own bed and mosquito net instead of sleeping on the floor with all the players. I protested but finally gave in, not knowing if they were afraid of breaking a rule of Islam or just taking care of me as always.

I spent all night getting bitten and wondering how many mosquitoes could have gotten inside the net. The next morning, I was sorry I had decided to set foot in that room; in the daylight I saw that there were bedbugs everywhere. I was itchy and miserable, but I didn’t dare take a bucket shower because I had seen tiny worms in the water.

It was a long weekend. When I wasn’t at the games, I wandered around the dusty streets. The women, like women all over Africa, were constantly gathering firewood and water, cooking, sweeping dirt floors and washing clothes. The men fished or sat under trees smoking as the women and girls walked by with enormous bundles balanced on their heads and babies tied to their backs with a kanga.

Kizingitini is much more sprawling and less charming than Lamu. It doesn’t have the white Swahili architecture or the tiny alleyways. It is a poor village of dark houses where children grow up eating fish and listening with disbelief to their parents’ stories of the outside world. Yet these families offered to share with me the little that they had – including a bed without bugs, once I explained the problem. “Karibuni, karibuni!” they would welcome us when I passed by with some players. Once inside they would sit me down on a hand-woven chair and smile at me as if I completed the room. “Habari ya leo?” they’d ask, three generations under one roof drinking my face with their eyes. “Mzuri sana. Hamjambo?” I exchanged pleasantries and they would laugh delightedly and tell me to stay with them for a week. I was the number one curiosity in the village and everyone wanted to get me into their houses. “Mchina,” my children followers would remind each other every now and then. How, I wondered, did they know what a Chinese person looked like if they had never seen a television?

Every scorching day and inky night I walked through the maze of houses with the growing conviction that if I had come there alone, these people whose names I never remembered would have given me everything I needed.

Coming back to Lamu from Kizingitini I breathed a sigh of relief; the waterfront looked like a metropolis. Once again I would have cold Fantas, running water, and decent toilets. I was back to the place where my days were infused with exaggerated colors and sensations. I got off the boat and savored the streets, smiling at the familiar faces of children and shopkeepers, stopping to greet friends on my way home. “Mwalimu!” they called. “Habari ya safari? Umesharudi?” How was the trip? You’re back already?

“Of course. Lamu paradise.”

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