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Secrets in Lamu

This column was written by Sarah Bullen for the Flâneur column for Design Anthology, June 2022




You’re in deep trouble if you get your wardrobe wrong for a stay on island of Lamu on the Kenyan coast. The tiny winding lanes that snake up and through the ancient village are filled with deep sand, and that’s sure death to most footwear.

 

Tonight we are weaving our way up through Shela Village to a nightclub built in the dunes. Shela is the boho-chic hip centre of the island, in contrast to the more traditional Lamu Town and we are ending a full week of writing with some dancing to some top DJs at Mararaha Village. The bar was created by owner Wamuhu Waweru out of recycled materials and using local crafters.

 

It is the last night of a week-long retreat and all pretence at shoe wearing has been dropped as we pant up the sandy hill towards the eccentric venue, rising on poles above the village like a chaotic scene from Mad Max.

 

Flip flops are a disaster and will bury themselves deep in the sand and snap, so leather shoes are preferred. Or better still walk barefoot. Slipping off your shoes is just one of the levels of surrender to the elements on this island. Just watch out for the droppings left behind by one of the ever-present donkeys, or broken glass as you near the recycling dump at the top of the village.

 

Our eclectic group of writers, poets and scriptwriters are in love with the oh-so-stylish island with its many secrets. Lamu was, for centuries, the African version of the Silk Road and epicentre of gold, spices and slaves.  So many invaders over the hundreds of years left a mark on it, which has added up to a rare glimpse into ancient ways.

 

“I feel like we are back in Biblical times,”  one author whispers as we get lost in the secret passageways, hidden courtyards, narrow streets and magnificent stone buildings.

 

The labyrinthine street pattern has its origins in Arab traditions, but the village is organised according to local Swahili culture where the clusters of dwellings are divided into a number of small wards (mitaa) where a number of closely related families live. Many showcase Swahili building technology, based on coral, lime and mangrove poles.

 

Earlier that week we wandered through Shela with gregarious local Babu British, snooping around some of the magnificent empty villas.

 

The real world feels so far away. We wake just after 5am as the Islamic call to prayer sung by the Muezzin from a minaret wafts down with the warm wind.

 

That night we had a storytelling evening under the coral and limestone walls of a villa.

“Whisper your secrets to the wall,” British urged us. It is tradition to whisper a secret or make a wish into the vidaka (niches) carved into the walls.

 

Despite a litany of A-listers, celebrities, and Italian and British aristocracy, that flock here year-round, the island still retains its super-discreet and somewhat mythical appeal

 

The reason is simple, it is hard-as-hell to get there. By the time your water taxi pulls up in front of the beachfront Swahili market and you see the open verandas of all the sea-front villas you are no longer is the 21st Century at all and all that hassle is forgiven. You are in an ancient trading city, has risen out of the sand and the mangrove swamps and time stands still.

 

 



 

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