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.


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