The Arab flavor of Lamu is not nearly as old as the town itself. It derives from the later nineteenth century when the Omanis, and to some extent the Hadhramis from what is now Yemen, held political and cultural sway in the town. The first British representatives found themselves among pale-skinned slave-owning Arab rulers. The cultural and racial stereotypes which were subsequently propagated have never completely disappeared.
Lamu was established on its present site by the fourteenth century but there have been people living on the Island for very much longer than that. The fresh water supplies beneath Shela made the Island very attractive to refugees from the mainland and people have been escaping here for 2000 years or more - most recently in the 1960's when Somali secessionists and cattle raiders caused havoc. It was also one of the earliest places on the coast to attract settlers from the Persian Gulf. There were probably people from Arabia and Southwest Asia living and intermarrying here even before the foundation of Islam.
Lamu is something of a myth factory - classical as well as popular. Conventionally labeled "an old Arab trading town", it is actually one of the last viable remnants of the swahili civilization that was the dominant cultural force all along the coast until the arrival of the British. In the late 1960's and 1970's, Lamu's unique blend of beaches, gently Islamic ambiance, funny old town, and population well used to strangers, was a recipe which took over where Marrakesh left off. It acquired a reputation as Kenya's Kathmandu: the end of the (African) Hippie trail and a stop-over on the way to India.
Lamu town itself is unending fascinating to stroll through, with few monuments but hundreds of ancient houses, arresting street scenes and cool corners to sit and rest. And the museum is exceptional, outshining all Kenya's others but the National Museum of Nairobi.
Initially confusing, Lamu is not the random clutter of houses and alleys it appears. Very few towns in Africa have kept their original town plan so intact (Timbuktu in West Africa is another) and Lamu's history is sufficiently documented, and its architecture well enough preserved, to give you a good idea of how the town developed.
The division is between the waterfront buildings and the town behind, separated by Usita wa Mui, now Harambee Avenue. Until around 1830, this was the waterfront, but the pile of accumulated rubish in the harbor had become large enough by the time the fort was finished to consider reclaiming it; gradually, those who could afford to built on it. The fort lost its pre-eminent position and Lamu, from the sea, took on a different aspects, which included Indian styles such as arches, verandas and shuttered windows.
Behind the waterfront, the old town retained a second division between Mkomani district, to the north of the fort, and Langoni to the south. These locations are important as they distinguish the town's long-established quarter (Mkomani) from the still-expanding district (Langoni) where traditionally newcomers have built their houses, often of mud and thatch rather than stone or modern materials. This north/south division is found in most Swahili towns and reflects the importance of Mecca, ,due north.
The museum has restored an eighteenth century house (the House Museum) to approximately its original appearance.
Lamu's stone houses are unique, perfect examples of architecture appropriate to its setting. The basic design is of an open, topless box enclosing a large courtyard, around which are set inward-facing rooms on two or three floors. These rooms are thus long and narrow, their ceilings supported by close-set timbers or mangrove poles (boriti). Most had exquisite carved doors at one time, though in all but a few dozen homes these have been sold off to pay for upkeep. Many also had zidaka, plaster-work niches in the walls to give an illusion of extended space, which are now just as rare. Toilet arrangements are ingenious, with fish in the large water cisterns to eat the mosquito larvae. On the top floor, a makuti roof shades one side. In parts of Lamu these old houses are built so close you could step across the street from one roof to another.
The private space inside Lamu's houses is inseparable and barely distinguishable from the public space outside. the noises of the town - donkeys, mosques, cats - percolate into the interiors, encouraged by the constant flow of air created by the narrow coolness of the dark streets and the heat which accumulates on upper surfaces exposes to the sun. There's an excellent display of Lamu's architecture at the museum in Nairobi.
The one place everyone goes on Lamu is, of course, the beach; Lamu's beach is the real thing. Unprotected by a reef, the sea here has some motion to it for once: it is one of the few places on the coast where, at certain times of the year, you can body surf. You can either walk down to Shela beach (about an hour) or you can take a motorboat or dhow.
Dodori and Boni National Reserves opened in 1976 to preserve a breeding ground for the East Lamu Topi, pelicans and other local bird life. Covering 877sq. km., with views of Dodori River and creek outlet with the densest, most varied species of mangrove forest in Kenya. Boni National Reserve is a 1,339 sq. km forest reserve created as a sanctuary for elephant from Garissa and Lamu.