'Are you lost?" A little girl in a tattered red dress looked up at us, her big brown eyes welcoming and sincere.
Yeah, we were lost. Wandering through maze-like alleyways and narrow paths, we had got lost for the seventh time that day - our first journey to magnificent Lamu, where getting lost is like losing oneself in another world, a world where the mix of Africa and Arabia, Swahili and English, scents and sounds is intoxicating. So, yeah, we were lost, but we had undeniably found our escape.
Since that day, nearly 10 years ago, we have tried to go back every year. Lamu, for us, has become somewhat of a refuge - the most peaceful corner of the world. It has become a place to honeymoon, to reconnect with old friends, to explore memorable spots. We visit again and again for its modest allure and for the gentle reminder, even as we speak out elsewhere against exploitation and inequality, that the world is still full of good souls.
Sadly, for all its splendour and beauty, Lamu is changing. The island we've grown to love may soon disappear. As part of Kenya Vision 2030, the government is planning a multibillion-dollar project in Lamu that consists of a port on neighbouring Manda Bay, new roads, an airport extension, an oil refinery and pipeline, and a series of small resort cities. No longer will the welcoming air of Lamu be calm and untouched.
Lamu, part of an archipelago of islands off the east coast of Kenya, just 120 kilometres from Somalia and a 90-minute flight from Nairobi, is a small coastal island that seems to be suspended in time. It was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its culture, charm and character have endured despite long-ago battles, economic slumps and the influence of modernity and commercialization.
Accessible by a short airstrip located on Manda Island, directly across from Lamu, or by a bumpy road and ferry from the mainland, Lamu has dodged the booming development of big hotels and resorts found in similar hideaways like Mombasa and Zanzibar. To its advantage, this gives the island an intimate and unperturbed feel.
Each time we land on Manda's gravel airstrip and exit the plane, we are hit in the face with penetrating sunshine. Walking down a jetty to hop onto one of many boats, we feel like we're home.
Arriving on the island, the first thing one notices is the smiles. Locals wave hello, shout " Jambo!" or give humble nods of the head. The second, and most astounding, is that there are only a half-dozen cars on the island. Instead, long-faced donkeys mosey by carrying cases of bottled Coca-Cola, stone for construction and people.
Houses, whose walls are made of century-old coral, sand and lime, stand side by side, separated only by small alleyways rather than roads and streets. Boys wearing soccer jerseys and skullcaps weave in and out of the alleys, women stroll with their friends and men, often barefoot and wearing the traditional kikoy (a colourful, striped sarong), sit on benches chatting and laughing. As the island's 30 mosques simultaneously broadcast one of the day's five calls to prayer, dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) slowly glide through the ocean, their speed determined solely by the tide and wind.
Whenever we're asked where to vacation, we unequivocally answer: "Africa. Especially Lamu!" Skip the well-trodden paths of European cities - the Mona Lisa will never develop wrinkles - but the continent of Africa changes rapidly.
On the island, hotels like Peponi or Shela House in quiet Shela Village offer a type of barefoot luxury. The Majlis Hotel, and others on Manda Island, offer secluded beaches and untouched nature, catering to popular musicians, actors and even politicians. Wherever one chooses to stay, it's certain that the staff will be more than welcoming and accommodating, taking the extra steps to ensure that the experience is unforgettable. It will be.
If you're looking for seclusion, Lamu fulfills. We know from experience that it's possible to set off on Shela Beach and run for two hours - two solid hours of uninterrupted serenity - before seeing another person or a house. When you turn back, don't be surprised to find your family combing the beach with worry, wondering what happened to keep you away so long.
Spending the day on Shela's 11-kilometre-long beach, watching children play, enjoying the almost constant breeze and taking a dip in the warm, clear Indian Ocean is a remarkable way to relax. Hard to miss are Marco Polo and Samuel Etoo - two friendly camels, ready to carry the willing.
And for the adventurous, try your hand at windsurfing, tubing and snorkelling.
Culturally, Fort Museum and Lamu Museum are enlightening. The fort, built in 1821 by the Sultan of Oman, now serves as a museum, library and home to Lamu's largest open market. Lamu Museum features exhibits on Swahili culture, tradition and dress. It's here you'll find two siwa horns, one of the oldest surviving African musical instruments. Additionally, art connoisseurs should make it a point to stop at My Eye gallery and Willy Art in Shela.
About a 10-minute walk from Shela Beach is Fatuma's Tower. Owned and operated by Gilles, the fiftysomething British expat and still a proud hippie, this calm and peaceful sanctuary of sorts is a yoga lover's paradise. Classes are held, sometimes with only one person, in a secluded stone room in which the walls get so sun-baked it feels like hot yoga This is a favourite- and has become part of the daily routine for both of us.
Of all that Lamu offers, a dhow ride is not to be missed. Full-day adventures include a tour of nearby islands and a stop on Manda, where one can go fishing and spend the evening around a fire barbecuing and eating freshly caught fish. Some guides will even let you act as "captain" and steer the dhow. If you do this, be careful not to sail into the thick mangroves!
But all of this may change. The undiscovered will be discovered, the calm will turn to bustle, and the history and culture will feel the threat of commercialization.
We spoke to friends in Lamu about the implications of the government's proposed plan. Gilles is worried Lamu will become a resort town, a sort of weekend getaway. Willy, artist and owner of Willy Art, is torn. On the one hand, he says the potential employment for residents is significant. On the other, tourists today visit Lamu for its small-town feel - but a port nearby will surely alter this sensation. Mohammed Mwenje, building inspector of Lamu museums, believes the government needs to put in place mechanisms to help with the transition, including housing for an expected population boom, and a plan (with funding) for historical and cultural preservation. Angelika, a local hotel and guest-house manager, is optimistic. The project would attract more tourists, and for people like her who have invested in properties on the island, that's a good thing.
The one certain thing: Visit the island before its existing culture and individuality are lost forever.
On that first day in Lamu a decade ago, we hurried with our families to the beach to behold the sunset. While sitting in the sand among the palms and acacias, a tall British woman, wearing an orange kikoy almost the same colour as the blazing sun, stopped in front of us, stretched her arms toward the ocean and said something we will never forget: "Isn't this beautiful? You've got the whole of Africa right in front of you!"
Lamu, for our sake and yours, we wish you'd never change.
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