“There’s one more thing about this place that you don’t know about,” said Caragh Roberts, owner of Manda Bay Resort, as she joined me for afternoon tea. I was enjoying the cool breeze from the ocean, watching various families gather together to play games and some drink cold beer. I had just stepped into this no shoes and no news island where donkeys and boats are the main means of transport, when Caragh shocked me by coming out with a blue four-wheel truck and told me to hop in.
Unable to take another sip, we drove through the sandy path past the thick vegetation, past dik diks and bush bucks past the majestic baobab trees which as Caragh described, might have dated over 500 years ago. It is an iconic tree in most African countries that lies at the heart of most traditional African folklore.
I travelled to this secluded part of Lamu with an appetite for a game drive in Lamu. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city center into this luxury beach lodge that was once owned by an Italian musician Bruno Brighetti, and is situated 12km from Lamu airport.
Suddenly we stopped at a place that seemed like the remains of an ancient town. I stepped out, with my camera held in one hand and slowly began to examine the remains of the coral built mosque, pillar tombs and a city wall that rose up to 3 meters.
At one time, this was a wealthy trading center between the 9th and 10th century with the Persian Gulf. It is said that dhows sailed away carrying elephant ivory and mangrove poles which were the chief trading commodities. The Chinese too traded with them. The first archeologist to have explored these ruins is said to be Neville Chittick in the year 1965. In his findings, he discovered that with the wealth came the fine living. Wealthy Swahili merchants could now afford to live in lavish houses which were constructed using burnt square bricks and stone, cemented with lime mortar – a technique unique to Kenya’s coastal lands and islands.
It was most likely brought to the islands by Omani traders. The bricks would have arrived in the island as ballast in sailing ships, which made their way into the port. It is said that the buildings in these islands were also built from coral from mid-9th to the early 11th centuries.
As I moved in deeper, I discovered that some of the ruins were a bit indecipherable as they had almost completely been reduced to dust. There was also a dug out well on the side, and madrassas where the young Muslims were taught Islamic ways. This was just one of the city-states that existed in the Lamu Archipelago. In the second decade of the 19th century, the Lamu archipelago became part of the Omani Arabs’ East African dominion. Before this time, the towns of Siyu, Pate, Rasini, as well as Lamu, backed by their hinterlands, had been citystates that were autonomous, and often fought to have control over their neighbors. These island towns were already established ports and their populations at the beginning of the century were both the Afro-Arab mixtures – Swahili and Bajun.
Later on, the Asians as well as the Omani Arabs joined the island’s population. Deeper into the mainland were the Bonis, whose forest settlements acted as a bulwark between the coastal cultivated zone the Somalis and Oromos.
It is said that the ruling families, which included Bwana Mataka of Siyu, Nabahani family of Pate, as well as Mzee bin Seif of Rasini all opposed the Omani lordship. All possible resources and alliances were employed to preserve their independence. The islands relied on the mainland for their economic stability and this made the leaders turn to the adjacent coast, which acted as a source of power and refuge. Consequently, this interaction resulted in the creation of the Witu sultanate and, allied to it, was the runway-slave frontier settlement with economic and political clout.
The Arabs in turn made mainland alliances to curb the activities of the dissidents. The slave trade and the extent of cultivation on the mainland, all relied on slave labor which increased as a result of the Omani Arab rule in the 1860’s and 1870’s.
For a deeper understanding of the entire history of the Lamu Archipelago a visit to the Takwa settlement is something I would recommend. One can get access to these islands by an organized dhow Safari or hitch a ride on a passing dhow. It is situated on the southern side of Manda Island, and was founded around year 1500. It is said that it was abandoned around 1700. Here, one can see the Great Mosque at Takwa, which is relatively well preserved. Other structures that are significant include the Pillar Tomb, which has an inscription with the date of 1681-1682. When it was abandoned, its inhabitants settled just across the bay at Shela on Lamu Island.
After that refreshing tour, it was time to go back to my huge, breezy beach front room at the resort. Myriads of thoughts cascaded my mind and I could not help but imagine of how witty these coastal people were and whether their philosophies and structures will still be there for generations to come.