Lamu is an island on Kenya’s northern coastline situated 250 kilometres north of Mombasa, and 100 kilometres south of the Somali border.
Human occupation in the region is reputed to date back to 800 CE, though there is little evidence to demonstrate settlement in the region prior to the 10th Century, when the first Arabian merchants washed ashore.
The island’s heyday, its first of many, commenced somewhere between the 12th and 13th Centuries, at which time the port settlement developed into an important city-state and regional trading centre. It rise to prominence was chiefly due to advantageous positioning (Lamu was the only point on the map between ports in the nations of Somalia and Mozambique – as they are known today).
Lamu’s main trade exports were ivory, timber, amber, cereal, and slaves. Its main imports were clothing, porcelain, spices, and manufactured goods. All goods were traded for distribution about the African mainland.
In 1506 the Portuguese launched their invasion of the East African coastline (a stepping-stone in their quest to take control of the Indian Ocean trade route). For the next 180 years Lamu was effectively under Portuguese rule, during which time Lamu’s economic growth was severely stifled – their role as intermediaries in the port city had been usurped, on top of which they had to pay hefty cash tributes to the Portuguese.
It wasn’t until the end of the 17th Century, following a decades-long campaign by Omani forces, that the Portuguese were successfully evicted from Lamu, and the commercial independence of the city-state was restored.
It was during this period, whilst under the aegis of the Omani empire, that Lamu’s renowned coral-stone houses were first built.
In 1890 Lamu was assigned to the British East Africa Company, along with the entire East African coast north of Zanzibar. The island fared reasonably well during its first few years under British reign, but its fortunes were overturned when the Uganda railway was inaugurated in 1901, and it suffered further when Nairobi replaced Mombasa as the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate in 1905. The following two decades saw Lamu’s economy plummet, and its population reduce by up to forty per cent.
The settlement continues to serve as a seaport, its muddy waterfront remains lined with traditional wooden dhows; its streets remain crowded with locals, many of whom are charged with errands that have barely altered since the Middle Ages.
There are only three vehicles on the island: a tractor, a three-wheeled ambulance, and a car reserved for a member of the local government. For everyone else it’s either donkeys, or your own two feet.
The lack of automobiles, a feat that has been achieved partly because of the geographical isolation of the port city, partly because of its conservative, tradition-minded inhabitants, but mostly because of the impossibly narrow and crooked laneways of Old Town, provides a unique Old World atmosphere that can’t be beat.
Looking for an exotic, labyrinthine Swahili port city that time forgot? Don’t go to Zanzibar, go to Lamu.
Practical information and how to reach Lamu:
WARNING: Make sure you check the latest security updates before heading to Lamu. Terrorist group Al Shabaab is active in the county, and there have been many horrific, multiple-fatality attacks in recent years (the most recent, at the time of writing, was in August 2017). Transport info here.