Lamu is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town and was one of the original Swahili settlements along the East African coast founded in 1370. This town is the headquarters of Lamu County and a UNESCO world heritage site. The town contains the Lamu Fort on the seafront, 23 mosques including the Riyadha Mosque and a donkey sanctuary.
Lamu old town is rich in history and culture with fine Swahili architectures built in the 14th century. The narrow streets around the old buildings remain unchanged and make one feel like you are stepping back in time. There are no vehicles in the town and donkeys are the main mode of transport for heavy loads on land while dhows provide human transport by sea. Though there are a few motorbikes and hand carts being introduced in this modern time.
The people of Lamu are fishermen, merchants, dhow builders and sailors who are great believers in traditions and customs and still follow the old age trades. For the traveller visiting Lamu, part of the main attraction to this area include the archipelago of Islands which lie between Lamu in the south and Kiunga in the north.
The islands include; Pate Island, Manda Island and Lamu Island. There is also the smaller Island which includes Kiwayu which has the Kiunga Marine National Reserve and Manda Toto. This archipelago contains several historical/archaeological sites of great significance.
(video courtesy of Mark Wiens Vlog)
Things to do in Lamu Island
- Lamu is home to the Maulidi Festivals that are held annually in January or February to celebrate the birth of Mohammed. It features a range of activities like donkey races, dhow sailing and swimming competitions.
- The Lamu cultural festivals are held in the last week of August and usually consist of a colourful carnival. It features traditional dancing, crafts and dhow races.
- There is also the Donkey Awards held in March/April which feature giving prizes to the finest donkeys.
Site Seeing around the old town
Lamu Museum; Located on the waterfront, you get to have a good grip of the Swahili culture. This is also where you find the island’s ceremonial horn referred to as Siwa.
Lamu Fort; This castle was built by a sultan and used to be a prison at one point. It now houses a library with a good collection of Swahili poetry and also has a gallery space for temporal art exhibitions.
Donkey Sanctuary; Established by International Donkey Trust in England, by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen who saw the need of providing treatment for the 3000 beasts of burdens found in the Island. The sanctuary provides treatment to the donkeys for free and is open to all visitors to learn about their work or send donations.
Lamu Market; Based in the middle of the narrow streets, the market is always a busy place booming with activities and you get the best bargain of fresh fish, spices and fresh vegetables. Watch out for the heavy load carrying donkeys and hand carts that push through the narrow paths.
Dhows are the second mode of transport in the Island after donkeys. They help move from one town to the next since the towns are near each other and on the oceanfront.
There is also the option of booking a safari dhow cruise where you get to visit some Islands close to Lamu, discover hidden villages and a few hidden luxurious resorts. You can also go fishing and have lunch on the beach or dhow by the ocean while enjoying the gentle breeze.
Where to stay
Most of the structures in Lamu date back to the 16th century and have remained in this condition ever since. Hence, accommodation is normally provided in this Swahili house setting that is designed to uphold this old age culture but still provides the much-needed luxury for any traveller.
There are high-end luxury guests houses set up in the old villages and island as well as budget friendly guests houses very attractive for bag packers and explorers.
Some of the best picks include;
The Majlis Resort
The Majlis is a 1-minute walk from the beach and it offers great views of the Ras Kitau Bay on Manda Island. The resort’s architecture features a fusion of Italian and Swahili designs with white interiors and traditional Swahili furnishing.
Andavelo is a bed and breakfast guest house located in Lamu old town. The guest house is well furnished with traditional Swahili furniture with bright white walls reflecting the ever-beaming sunlight.
Jua House is a bed and breakfast guest house at the heart of Shela Village, a small village with very friendly people and rich culture. Other meals can be made upon request as well as arrangements for excursions and activities on the Islands.
There are quite a numbers of other properties to choose from, check out more options here; Lamu Properties.
As the Lamu people have opted to keep the old age traditions to date, life in this Island tends to take you back in time. Everything in this Island moves at a slow pace; the day begins late, people go on with their activities at a slow pace. Hence, one needs to relax and take it all in, even sunrise and sunset appear at a slow pace.
One more thing to note is that this area is dominated by Muslims with many mosques constituting a call to prayer every now and them through their big microphones. The mosques and the donkeys seem to be the only source of noise and sound dominating is the old town.
I would love to hear your comments or questions and contribution about your tour to this old town below.