August 28, 2008


I enjoyed my time in Lamu more than any other part of this trip. I don't know if this town attracts kindred spirits, but a group of about 6-7 of us travelers, all similar in age, managed to find each other and take our meals and activities together. It was truly refreshing to break bread with other like-minded travelers after so many nights chilling by myself. The highlight was a trip to Coconut Beach where we had an impromptu sing-along with drums, starting with the greatest hits of Bob Marley, and continuing with several Bollywood classics, Queen, and the Danish national anthem. We were also joined by an Estonian member of parliament taking holiday in Lamu!

In between doing the research for the other post on Lamu, I managed to take several dhow rides, drink the best fresh juices, talk philosophy, politics, history, and religion, and befriend a group of local kids, impressing them with my extremely limited knowledge of Arabic by reciting al-Fatiha. They declared they were now my kikosi cha salama, and we played soccer and they taught me bad words in Swahili.

Lamu is, according to my guidebook, "Kenya's worst best-kept secret." Along with Zanzibar and Mombasa, Lamu was (and is) one of the most important coastal sites for Swahili culture. The carved doors, the narrow streets, the stone buildings, men in kanzu with elaborately woven hats, ethnic as well as culinary mixtures blending Indian, Arab, and African elements all make of the distinctive and unique culture of the Swahili coast. The entire town is a World Heritage Site so there is a lot of initiatives to make Lamu into a responsible tourism area. Down the beach, eastwards toward the Indian Ocean, Shela, a stretch of resorts catering to an exclusively European clientele, provides a stark contrast to Lamu. It was constructed to look like Lamu, but possesses none of the former's character. Its streets are spotlessly clean and absolutely empty. I guess Lamu has succeeded in preserving the important elements of its past by seperating the resort destination from the Lamu's immediate cultural envirornment. Nevertheless, the resort is there and constitutes the lifeblood of Lamu these days, as it is for so many other coastal destinations. And tourism means encouraging outside investment, set-asides of prime coastal land for resorts, and importation of a lifestyle often at odds with the more conservative elements of coastal religion.

Out of all the places I visited, Lamu offered the most curious contrast between the two. It seemed to exist in a state of incredible tolerance for homosexuality and cross-dressing. At the disco on Saturday night, men danced with other men and as women left the club I saw them zipping up their bui-buis over miniskirts in the morning chill. Some theorist of modernity and the sociology of religion could have a nice time with that observation. As for me, it was a welcome but very productive change of pace, before heading back to Nairobi.


Habib Saleh, Sheikh of Lamu Town

Wow...what can I say about Lamu that hasn't already been said. While I was here I was determined to track down the history of Habib Saleh, another Sufi who had an enormous impact on the history of coastal Islam, and much like Sheikh Ramiya of Bagamoyo, was well-loved and revered by his students, other scholars, and especially Africans. Habib Saleh is perhaps best known for the way he introduced a more egalitarian and open form of worship into the five daily prayers, as well as for his dissemination of a new maulid recitation on the occasion of the prophet Muhammed's birthday. He was notable for the way in which he explicitly spoke out against Arab anti-black racism (all the more so, since he himself was an Arab) and the arrogance of power. The mosque he helped to build still stands in Lamu today; it is called the Riyadha mosque and it is currently undergoing renovations. It is surrounded by a secondary school and a college both funded, according to my guidebook, by money from Saudi Arabia. However, when I asked my informant, the great-great grandson of Habib Saleh, about this, he explicitly stated that no Saudi Arabian money comes to Riyadha mosque. Rather the word riyadh refers to 'Riyadha al-Jana' or the 'Meadows of Paradise.' The Prophet related an allegory to impress on the early Muslims the value of knowledge. He emphasized that if you pass through these gardens of paradise, don't rush through. Instead stay and eat of the fruit (knowledge).
Anyway, H.S.'s great-great grandson Hussein Badawi took pains to establish Lamu's opposition to the ideas emanating from the branch of Islam currently in power in Saudi Arabia. "The Wahabbis," he said, "believe in the conditional acceptance of gifts. If you receive something from them, you must also accept their ideology."

But back to Habib Saleh, or Swaleh Ibn Alwy Jamaliliel. Born in 1269 A.H. in the Comoros, he moved to Lamu at 15 or 18 (depending on the source you consult) to live with his uncle Sharif Seyyid Ali. (you can see part of his uncle's grave to the left of Habib Saleh's (big and black) in the picture. His mother's name was Maryam and his father's name Alawi. He began teaching soon after arriving, and eventually Sheikh Abu Bakr Manswab al-Hussein, no doubt impressed with the young man's erudition and piety, gave him a piece of land to build the Riyadha mosque on.
Habib Saleh's family were Comorian Arabs originally from Yemen. They also laid claim to descent from Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammed. The geneaology goes something like this, with apologies if I get it wrong: I was writing notes in English from a Swahili interview. It seems that Habib Saleh's 6th grandfather Haroon came from Yemen to Pate in the 10th century in one of the many migrations that Arabs from the Hadramat made to East Africa. His fourth grandfather, Abdullah bin Ahmed, then migrated from Pate to the Comoros, for reasons I don't know. He died at sea and the story goes, that his grandson, with him on the boat, wrapped his body in a white sheet to be thrown in the sea. As the men heaved the body overboard, they were amazed to see two large birds grab it and fly away with it.
Stories like these also proliferated around Habib Saleh. There were three related to me, all symbolically involving jahazis (a type of dhow). I say symbolically because the dhow represents one of the things that gave Islam in East Africa its unique bringing scholars from all over the Indian Ocean. In one of the stories, Habib Saleh brings a jahazi safely back to port during a storm, by praying for it from land. In another, he sends his sons to meet a jahazi docking at Lamu, telling them it will bring a visitor for them. The visitor, another scholar from Yemen, is amazed, because he gave no notice to Habib Saleh of his coming. And in yet another story, Habib Saleh prays during the maulid because there is no food for the many visitors to eat. That day, a jahazi is forced to dock at Lamu because they are overloaded with food.
Now the skeptical mind will not read too much into these stories, and would be likely to dismiss them as circumstance. But their importance lies in how they position Saleh as a man of immense piety and learning, whose humility gave him power. For instance, I was fortunate enough to tour Habib Saleh's house (its normally only open during the maulid) and see the very simple way he lived, despite being quite affluent. It made me understand something again of the power of Sufism as an organizing principle in East Africa. Habib Saleh's children continued his legacy--his grandson Said Ali Badawi even became the chief qadi of Kenya for a time.
All in all, I felt extremely fortunate to probe deeper into the life of this remarkable scholar. I am wondering if perhaps some sort of comparative perspective of these Sufi personalities might fruitfully illuminate not only the common threads that made them so popular, but also whether or not they had any knowledge of each other. This is one question that I was going to put to Hussein Badawi's brother, author of the book, Ariyadh baina madhihi wa hadhirihi. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to meet him before I had to leave Lamu.


August 26, 2008

Family and Friends at Telekom Towers

My host family, neighbors, and the kids who live in my building. They asked me everyday, "Twende Nakumatt kununua peremende." (Lets go to Nakumatt (a local supermarket) to buy sweets).


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