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Photo Exhibition of 'Lamu'

Desi Anwar is currently holding a photographic exhibition of Lamu, Kenya at Cassis Restaurant at Pavilion Apartment. Lamu is a small island off the west coast of Kenya in Africa that is still relatively sheltered from modernity and that still retains its tradition of Swahili Arabs and Portuguese colonialisation. It is fascinating to visit and not a known tourist destination. The following is an article on Lamu that goes with the exhibition:

Lamu, Kenya
By Desi Anwar

I didn’t know how I ended up at Lamu Island. It was not on my list of places to see before I die, but after almost two weeks of game hunting and squinting my eyes for wildlife in the vast stretches of Kenya’s famed safari parks, I was ready to see human beings. And Lamu Island, supposedly Africa’s Katmandu for travel weary backpackers, was less than a couple of hour flight away from Nairobi off the eastern coast of Kenya.

The magic of Lamu Island begins as you step off the small plane on the short landing strip. Here sunburnt boatmen whose faces are more Arabic than African eagerly haul your luggage and lead you to the traditional sail boat, the dhow, that is the main form of transportation around this tiny island. The afternoon wind is surprisingly cool and strong and though the trip is short the waters in this part of the Indian Ocean are choppy, giving one plenty of time to take in the picture postcard beauty of Lamu waterfront with its row of whitewashed houses with shady balconies, some imposing, others dilapidated, all architectural testament to past grandeur and present neglect.

There are several hotels for the weary tourists to stay here; the better run and more expensive one, Peponi, is owned by Brits who wandered to this part of the world when the country was still a British colony and never thought of going home. Or perhaps it was their home. I cannot remember. But the fair haired woman running the place barks orders equally well in English and Swahili.

As you sip chilled welcome drinks on the veranda of the hotel facing the empty and pristine stretch of sand of Shela beach at low tide, the sense of remoteness sinks in. You’ve read that this town dates to the 14th century and was once a flourishing trading centre for ivory, mangrove poles and slaves from the interior bound for the Middle East. The population boomed in the nineteenth century and the island became a centre for Swahili, Arab art and learning unrivalled on the African coast. Old Portuguese cannons in the hotel garden face the ocean – a reminder of a vibrant past.

Today the dhows, small speed boats and sail boats bobbing on the waters outside the hotel and lining up the beach wait expectantly for business from the handful number of tourists that come sporadically to the island. Without them the fishermen find the plentiful of fresh seafood, lobsters and sweet tasting crabs that make the guests’ dinner menu, almost worthless and the boatmen have no passenger. August is the tourist season. Our hotel host is careful to rotate the boatmen that ply the guests up and down the coast whether to Lamu town or to visit the turtles on Manda Island so everybody gets a turn at earning income.

Getting to Lamu town from Shela Beach is a forty-minute walk on the seafront or a fifeen minute dhow ride away. Alternatively you can hire a donkey, which is another mode of transportation on this tiny island of one town and three villages. Our host reminds you to cover up. You use the colourful kikoi wrap thoughtfully provided in your room. Sheltered from cultural change Lamu Island proudly retains its Muslim Swahili identity, the women modestly covered up in black abayas while the men don white robes. Too much flesh is frowned on and a sign of disrespect for the local culture.

Our guide Saidi, a jovial man whose hard life makes him look older than his years, is eager to lead us through the small labyrinthine alleys of Lamu town and inside traditional Lamu houses with narrow stair cases and floors that open up onto flat rooftops that give unimpeded view of the sea and nearby islands. The houses are cool, airy and spacious with geometric designs typical of Muslim architecture and thatched roofs. We sip milky tea on the third floor of a café belonging to a Canadian married to a local Muslim. The small courtyards are verdant with luscious plants and pink bougainvillea while the ubiquitous Lamu cats (descendants of Egyptian cats brought to the island once upon a time the story went) play hide and seek in the garden.

The centre of Lamu town is a small square with a large tree where people sit around or wander around the nearby fresh market that sells spices and sticky homemade sweet sold by the ounces weighed on a tin scale. The people here are poor and many young men loiter in the streets and the shady doorways as you pass, not unfriendly, yet not welcoming either. You take care not to direct your camera on them for it offends them.

Saidi talks of how Europeans are buying up old Lamu houses and renovating them to sell at a much higher price or to turn into luxury guesthouses. I joke that if I have a lot of money I will buy one and Saidi can manage it and become rich. He laughs, liking the idea, showing a mouth lacking in teeth. ‘Come back tomorrow’ he says, ‘I will show you the town again. I know of a dream house for sale.’ After midday the shops close their shutters and the streets empty as the rays of the sun become too hot to bear. You sail back to the hotel on the dhow, promising to return. But you don’t.

(First appeared in The Jakarta Globe, November 2008)

 

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