Lamu Island

An Overview by Priya Basil


To be in Lamu and the surrounding archipelago is to feel you have gone back in time. History is not only preserved in local architecture, customs and archaeological sites, but daily life also carries echoes of a bygone era. Society here is rooted in tradition: loyal to their Islamic values and the rituals of their forbears.

The absence of cars means that transport in Lamu happens by foot, donkey or dhow. Thus it is one of those rare places without the constant hum of engines in the background. Instead, behind the peacefulness that prevails today are stories of a rich and tempestuous past.

Lamu town is Kenya’s oldest living settlement, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Earliest known references to the town date back to the 14th century. Yet, dotted across the Lamu archipelago are ruins indicating that towns existed in the region at least 1200 years ago. Lamu was taken over by the Portuguese after an invasion in 1506. The Portuguese dominated this part of the coast for almost two hundred years – until Lamu managed to overthrow their rule with Oman’s assistance. A golden age followed in the eighteenth century under the Omani protectorate. For the next 150 years, Lamu was a center where poetry, politics, arts and crafts flourished. The port also thrived, with ships from as far away as Persia and China regularly passing through. Inevitably the different invaders and traders left their mark: the Swahili language, architecture, cuisine and culture bear traces of foreign encounters.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, as Mombasa and Zanzibar grew rapidly, Lamu went into decline. As is often the case with the strange turns of history, it was the island’s eventual economic collapse that resulted in the tranquil paradise that exists today.


Lamu is the main hub amongst a chain of islands that make up the Lamu archipelago, which stretches north-eastwards from the Kenyan coast over a distance of approximately 100 kilometres - almost until the Somali border. Accessible only by plane or boat, the archipelago is stunning and unspoilt. Even Lamu island, which is separated from mainland Kenya only by a narrow channel, bordered by dense mangrove forests, feels unique and remote.

The pace of life is slow, governed by the seasons and the tides, sunset, sunrise and the four-hourly call of the muezzin. A sense of calm pervades Lamu, and yet it is full of vitality. The vivid colours of the landscape alone can brighten any mood, while the warmth and friendliness of the locals gladdens every heart.

Lamu town and Shela village, though modest settlements, are the biggest on the island (Lamu town has 8,000 inhabitants, while there are 1,200 people living in Shela). There is always a bit of hustle and bustle in both places as everybody goes about their business issuing greetings to all they pass, while the muezzin and the donkeys sometimes seem to compete over who can call out the longest and loudest. Several times a year, during religious and cultural festivals, Lamu’s sea front and small sandy streets really do get crowded as everyone troops out to join in the fun.

Small-scale tourism has given Lamu an economic boost. In the 1970s, visiting Americans and Europeans fell in love with old Swahili mansions, buying and painstakingly restoring them for private use. Since the 1990s, more of these old houses have been restored and turned into holiday homes and boutique hotels. Quite a few new houses have also been built in the old Swahili style. The skilled craftsmanship required for certain aspects of Swahili construction, like making stucco with limestone, has seen a revival, and there are, once again, many talented workers specialized in the old methods. Tourism has also helped to create jobs and new opportunities. So far, the development has progressed in harmony with local people’s needs and values.


Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.
Bertold Brecht

Alas! Even in idyllic Lamu, where everything happens ‘pole pole’, slowly slowly, things will not stay the way they are. The island’s history shows that it has long been subject to changes, big and small, yet the traditional Swahili ways of doing things has been remarkably preserved through it all.

Unfortunately, the future looms with possibilities that could transform the island completely. There has been talk of building a bridge from the mainland and a ring road around Lamu island. The Kenyan government has plans underway to build a huge international port, airport and oil refinery near Lamu with visions of transforming the area into a ‘little Singapore’, and Lamu itself into ‘Dubai’. This project is backed by various foreign parties who stand to gain from the port, including the Chinese government.
Local feelings about these developments are mixed. Many think it will bring jobs and prosperity, but they also fear, rightly, that their area will be environmentally and culturally degraded. Once the port construction gets underway, it is certain that Lamu will not remain untouched for long. Mass tourism, avoided until now because of the island’s relative inaccessibility, will become a reality. It’s sad to imagine the pure sweep of Shela’s eight kilometer beach being studded with high rise hotels… Sadder still is the prospect that the intimate nature of life in Lamu, which fosters the strong sense of community that defines this place, will be eroded by the influx of large numbers of migrant workers and other temporary visitors. It has been estimated that the port will increase Lamu’s population by over 833% - to 1.25 million people!

This is a bleak picture, but hopefully not an inevitable one. Objections to the port’s construction are being raised by many, including Save Lamu - a coalition of over twenty-two local community-based organizations. Sincere consultation by the government with activists, experts and locals would go some way to ensuring that the negative impact of the port is limited. Whether this will happen is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, foreigners can support Lamu is by coming to the island while it retains its current unique character. There may only be a few years left to experience ‘old world’ Lamu ...