For centuries, East Africa was in the center of the trade map, drawing a steady influx of Arabs, Africans, Indians, and Europeans. The result is a rich cultural and culinary mix that defines the Swahili coast. Consisting of four main islands — Lamu, Pate, Manda, and Kiwayu — the Lamu archipelago is one of the best-preserved Swahili settlements.
I’m woken up by the call to prayer blaring from the mosque next door just before dawn, filling the sky with the melodic voice of the muezzin followed by the pitter-patter of sandals on the pavement. The sun rises over Manda Island, illuminating a scene that has remained virtually unchanged for centuries — dhow sails sway between the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and an endless blue sky, fishermen hunt for fish and octopus in the shallows, Swahili-style houses dot the mangrove-lined coast.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a car on the Island. Here, nearly everyone and everything travels by donkey or dhow. So I jump in a boat and take a short ride to Old Town, the oldest continually inhabited Swahili town in East Africa. On this day, a donkey race was on the schedule, making the boardwalk the center of attention.
It’s easy to spend the day here, but for Lamu to divulge her secrets, one must venture past the historical museum, donkey sanctuary, and public square, and head into the backstreets. Follow the sounds of children reciting from the Quran in unison and let the aroma of incense wafting from high windows carry you into the labyrinth. Take in the beautiful architecture and uniquely carved wooden doors, a Lamu signature.
Swahili people have a very formal sense of hospitality so it’s not unusual to be offered a drink or piece of fruit as relief from the heat. It’s how I found myself in a halwa shop, being serenaded by two men as they worked. Halwa, a sticky, gelatinous sweet best enjoyed with a strong cup of coffee, requires four to five hours of constant stirring to ensure the end product is velvety-smooth and without lumps.
As the day fades, cooks set up shop all over town, frying samosas, viyazi karai (delicious potatoes served with tamarind chutney), and marinated chicken and lamb skewers. I grab a few snacks and board a dhow departing for Shella, a village on the other side of Lamu Island. From the boat, I watch the famous jahazi (dhow) race in the distance as nimble men navigate the choppy water in their ancient vessels.
“Lamu Tamu” (Kiswahili for ‘sweet Lamu’) is the unofficial nickname of the island and “pole pole” (slowly, slowly) is its motto. Although it wavers between charming and chaotic, I can’t think of a better description for this place, Kenya’s best-kept secret.