Off the coast of Kenya, this Muslim enclave's roots go back to the days when Arabs controlled trade in East Africa. Now with the invasion of tourism, the question remains: What is going to happen to this fantastically preserved place?

By Linda Quinet

Off the coast of Kenya, the island of Lamu is a one-and-one-half-hour flight from Nairobi, the international gateway to this African republic. Lamu's Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Swahili is a mix of Arabic, Indian and African tongues and cultures--in Lamu it's a combination of East African, Omani, Yemeni, Indian, along with Portuguese and Victorian influences.

As an island trading center it served the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf and Far East. It survived Portuguese takeover and Turk raids before a workable co-existence with Omani Arabs. By the 1500s it was a thriving port, exporting timber, ivory, amber, spices and slaves. When the Portuguese arrived, it surrendered without a murmur and in the mid-1800s it became a subject of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which nominally controlled the whole coastal strip until Kenya became independent in 1963.

After this came the British colonial period. Serious economic decline came when protectorate headquarters were moved to Nairobi and slavery was abolished (probably a blessing in disguise, since the loss of cheap labor meant Lamu had to stay the same longer). Recent history includes an onslaught of hippies in the '60s.

Lamu's narrow streets remain unchanged from the days the island was a center of trade of gold, spices and slaves for the Arab world. In the markets and squares around the fort, life moves at the same pace reminiscent of centuries ago. There are no vehicles on this island (except one car belonging to a district official). Dhows (Arab sailing boats) taxi people to island stops. Other than feet, donkeys are the main mode of transportation. They roam at will around the town, so watch where you step.

Almost entirely Muslim, islanders dress accordingly. Many men wear full-length white robes and skullcaps. Women are apt to wear black wrap-around robes, most of them cover their head as well in black, and a few women covered their entire face except for slits around their eyes. Some younger men opt for tank-top shirts and Tommy Hilfiger wear, but most still adhere to the old ways.

It has been the same for centuries. The people of Lamu are great believers in tradition and custom. Its trading role and its attraction for scholars and teachers gave Lamu an important religious function in the region. It continues to be significant center for education in Islamic and Swahili culture. It is a rare example of a settlement that has maintained its social and cultural integrity, including the annual religious festival of Maulidi, which attracts Muslim followers.

Tourists are the current invaders, although Lamu is difficult to get to. Our day on the island of Lamu started with a van ride to Malindi airport, then a half-hour propeller plane to a neighboring island, then a boat ride to Lamu itself. Little boys dive over and around the boat taxis that pull into port. The relaxed and welcoming attitudes of the locals make it a pleasantly exotic experience.

After a torturous walk in the heat--many streets are so narrow, you can't walk side by side--a hotel with a fan and seafront breeze is welcome respite. Courage comes back for another walk to the main mosque and market area where visitors are deluged with offers from very insistent guides. The museum guide wanted to stay with us, but evidently there are territorial considerations, and the street guide won. You learn it's easier to agree to have one accompany you; they don't take no for an answer! Also, once you have a guide, the others leave you alone.

Thanks to the guide, entry to one of the big houses was obtained. These are designed with the entry portal that Arab etiquette used to demand. Visitors would knock, greet and conduct business on benches outside the house, lest one of the women of the house be seen. Old Town houses are built of coral stone and mangrove timber with inner courtyards, verandahs and elaborately carved wooden doors. The stone structures have resisted weathering and remain in good shape for the most part. Demand for tourist accommodations is causing conversion of private houses into guest houses. If ever you get the opportunity to stay in one of these, try for the top floor where air circulates (at least a little). Most houses have a rooftop used as a patio, indicative that hanging back and catching a breeze is important.

These two and three-story houses are interspersed with small gardens. Old Town is surrounded by an area of mud brick buildings, many of which have been converted to permanent homes with concrete block walls and corrugated iron roofs. Along the sea front, buildings are largely from the 18th-century colonial period. Bazaar streets parallel the shoreline. The mosque and fort are standout sites.

Refuge from the sun can be sought in the nearly 40-year-old museum focusing on Swahili culture. A well-versed guide approached us and ran through the island's history from when Vasco da Gama discovered it. Some believe the island was actually settled in the 7th century, although the first written history begins in 1402. Old Swahili settlements date to the 8th or 9th centuries, but have either fallen into ruins or succumbed to modernization. Lamu is the best preserved example.

The rest of the island that only a day in Lamu doesn't allow for is described as rolling dunes and endless beaches with tiny villages among coconut and mango plantations accessible by dhows. But Lamu's real attraction is its Old town. As the sun was going down, it was back to the port to people watch and wait for our boat to the plane to the van.

It was only a day's visit to Lamu, but questions linger...can it stay as it has for so long? The history of this East African seaport is a story of survival in the face of invasion. It is up to the community whether losing its cultural heritage is inevitable, or if it can guide development so as to retain what has endured to this point.

A few words about taking photographs in Lamu:

If you photograph Muslim women, do you go to hell?

They wave you away if approached with a camera. It was not clear what the stakes are until the brouhaha about publishing drawings of the Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspapers (that took place after this trip). At the time I figured I was taking pictures of scenes, not THEM. If they happened to be in the overall picture, and they didn't KNOW they were being photographed, it must be okay, I reasoned.

Not so. The Muslim faith prohibits photographing women because a photograph supposedly captures the soul. Images of any type (sculpted, painted or photographed) are verboten, because in some religious interpretations, "angels will not enter a house containing them." The Prophet has been quoted: "Every photographer is in hell--he who made an image shall be asked to make it alive in the Judgment Day, yet, he will not be able to." On one hand, there is the argument that iconophobia is not a classical Muslim doctrine, but results from the increasing power of fundamentalist sects.

On the other hand, some Muslims will give permission to be photographed if arranged in advance (else where would National Geographic be?). The concept is up for interpretation, depending on where you are and whom you know. To do the right thing, it takes sensitivity, education and above all, respect. It sometimes means squelching your western freedom-of-expression stance in favor of not inciting needless reprisals.

If prohibition makes one all the more determined to take pictures, the photographer ends up with many back views and far-away shots...and possibly, hell. Some believe Muslim countries may in time loosen up on this issue, that attitudes are changing because of the desire to project a positive image and/or attract tourism.

Don't wait for this to happen in Lamu.

Getting there:

Annually between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors come to Lamu, about a third from Kenya. Its population is about the same. Flights are from Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi. Besides two major hotels, private accommodations and small hotels provide about 500 beds. Increases in population and numbers of visitors are creating pressures for change--from a society previously emphasizing privacy to more open lifestyle, producing social tensions, according to the UNESCO summary recently granting World Heritage status to Lamu.

Photo Credits: Linda Quinet, Romar Traveler
– as published in Romar Traveler online magazine