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Swahili slowdown

November 11, 2009

Lamu – even the name is pleasing, rolling around the mouth like a lazy slurp of Baileys. We’re on an island off the east coast – back on the Indian Ocean. We’ve seen the ocean from both sides now (apologies to Joni Mitchell), from Kerala to the Maldives, and now we’re heading down its western flank on our slow route south to Cape Town.

But we’ll stop here, on shores fringed alternatively by mangroves and golden sands, choosing the little fishing village of Shela on Lamu island, for a much-needed few days’ rest. We rent a top floor apartment in a traditional Swahili palm-roofed, stone house, with a broad veranda, sunny terrace and large cool room. From here, we can see over the bay, watching fishing boats come and go, furling and unfurling their sails. We can see across the mangroves to the other islands beyond – most, uninhabited – and across the sand dunes to the long, long beach behind. Whale carcasses regularly wash up on the beach and there are sun-bleached bones and complete skeletons of these vast creatures on the sand like stone sculptures.

The difference from Nairobi couldn’t be more stark. The air here is clean and fresh, there is little noise, no traffic at all unless you count the zonkeys (stripey donkeys) trudging up and down with their loads, or the occasional camel. It is also, happily, very unthreatening. Even last year’s post-election violence passed Lamu by. AK-47s, available elsewhere for less than US$10, and reportedly exchangeable in the north around Turkana for a loaf of bread, are absent here. The only aggression I’ve seen, is of a small boy hitting his stubborn zonkey with a stick.

Our days slide into a comforting regularity: I wake early and stroll to the beach to buy fish for our supper from the fishermen returning from their night trips. We have a lovely breakfast of warm juicy mangoes or papaya with limes or oranges or all three, boil up water for Swahili tea and coffee and eat the local triangle-shaped donut pastries with it (these are actually best eaten dipped in honey, but the honey we’ve bought here has been a sort of vile black treacle that neither of us can eat).

We prepare tomato and onion salad with capsicum and chilli peppers and garlic and carrot if we find it for lunch, with boiled eggs and chapatis. And dinner is our fish with rice and veggies, or we go out to eat as a treat – it’s pricey, here. In the evenings, when it becomes too dark for reading, we sit on our terrace and watch for shooting stars and follow the bats flying around the blackness like errant shooting stars, squeaking and clicking at each other. The peace is broken every so often by the many shagging cats (there are no dogs here) or a madly braying zonkey, mournfully singing out in the only way it can.

Lamu is the oldest continually inhabited town on this coast. Like most of the eastern coast, it is almost entirely Muslim. Women in burqa pass down the narrow twisty alleyways between tall, whitewashed houses like ghosts in negative, and almost as invisible, which is perhaps the idea. There are plenty of faces to see though, and they are friendly and cheerful. Swahili cities once thrived along this entire coast, the sultans trading with merchants from the Arab world, India and even China, exchanging spices, slaves, gold and African beasts for silks, ceramics and other goods, from as early as the 7th century. They were eventually usurped by conquerors from Oman and Portugal (Vasco da Gama, again!), and the Swahili language of the coast, which was made Kenya’s national language during the British era, is a great mix of Arabic, African and Portuguese words.

Like everywhere else we’ve been in the developing world, it’s is the women who do the majority of the work here. Groups of young and old men, sit around lazily in the shade, while women walk past them, carrying huge bundles, baby strapped in a sling across their back and often a toddler in tow. Only about half of the people here are negro Africans, the others are Arabs who have lived here for generations, and they own most of the businesses and property here. Some of the best property is owned by white people, though. Represented here are the usual, slightly weird community of Europeans that have spent large portions of their lives living in Africa doing dodgy or legitimate trade across the continent and so don’t fit in in Europe anymore or can’t afford the luxurious standard of lifestyle (a few servants) that they are used to in Africa; South African whites or white Kenyans, Ugandans etc, escaping the violence and politics of elsewhere for a second home here or a retirement home; and Europeans who have visited Lamu on holiday once or twice and decided to open a hotel or buy a holiday home here. These last have the most trouble. Unused to African ways, they arrive with their big plans and European ideas of efficiency, only to be gradually worn down by the frustrations of the process. The only arguments we’ve heard have been between angry shouty Europeans screaming at locals about rules and lawyers and the like. Nothing gets done around here like that.

But, if they do succeed, the results are often wonderful. We’ve peaked into ancient palaces fully and faithfully restored by Westerners, into new-built hotels created in Swahili style around a planted courtyard and beautifully finished. If we had lots of money, we might stay in one of these lovely buildings.

But we are more than happy with our home here. In a few days we must leave, travel down the coast to Malindi (which involves getting a bus as far as the point where the bridge was washed away in last week’s rains, then wading across with our bags and getting another bus from the other bank), then on to Mombasa, the British colonial capital. From there, we will go to Voi and then change bus to Taveta, travelling down to Tanzania to Kilimanjaro, where my brother and his girlfriend are coming out to meet us. Very nice!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Attila's wife permalink
    November 12, 2009 10:24 am

    Darling,
    Lovely to read something easy on the eye!
    Your previous exploits have been completely shattering!
    Please avoid all dangers from now!! We need to learn about the results of climate change and you’ve got to be around to tell us!!
    Have a wonderful time with the gorrilllas – look after everyone -would love to be coming too!
    Lots of love (congratulations on the beautiful writing)xxxxx

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