Lamu History / Lamu Culture
Lamu town is the largest town on Lamu Island, which in turn is a part of the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya.
Lamu town is also the headquarters of Lamu District and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lamu, Kenya’s oldest living town, was one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa.
There are some other accounts that mention Chinese ships of Zheng He’s fleet sinking near Lamu Island in Kenya in. Survivors are said to have settled in the island and married local women.However, the authenticity of this story is disputed.
The port of Lamu has existed for at least a thousand years. The town was first attested in writing by an Arab traveller Abu-al-Mahasini who met a Judge from Lamu visiting Mecca in 1441.
The town’s history is marked by a Portuguese invasion which began in 1506, and the Omani domination around 1813 (the year of the Battle of Shela). The Portuguese invasion was prompted by the nation’s successful mission to control trade along the coast of the Indian Ocean. For considerable time, Portugal had a monopoly in shipping along the East African coast and imposed export taxes on the pre-existing local channels of commerce. In the 1580s, Lamu led a rebellion against the Portuguese, prompted by Turkish raids. In 1652, Lamu was assisted by Oman in lifting Portuguese control. Lamu’s years as an Omani protectorate mark the town’s golden age. During this period, Lamu became a center of poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as the trade.
Lamu is a popular destination for backpackers in search of an authentic experience. As the majority of Lamu’s population is Muslim, for many Lamu is there first experience of Ramadan. Hungry backpackers arriving on overnight bus trips unaware that food is not available until sunset need look no further than boys selling somosas and other homemade treats on the local beach.
Lamu’s economy was based on slave trade until abolition in the year 1907. Other traditional exports included ivory, mangrove, turtle shells and rhinoceros horn, which were shipped via the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and India. In addition to the abolition of slavery, construction of the Uganda Railroad in 1901 (which started from the competing port of Mombassa) significantly hampered Lamu’s economy. Tourism has gradually refuelled the local economy in recent times.
China has begun feasibility studies to transform Lamu into the largest port in East Africa, as part of their String of Pearls strategy.
The town was founded in the 14th century and it contains many fine examples of Swahili architecture. The old city is inscribed on the World Heritage List as “the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa”.
Once a center for the slave trade, the population of Lamu is ethnically diverse. Lamu was on the main Arabian trading routes, and as a result, the population is largely Muslim. Due to the narrowness of the streets, automobiles are not allowed – the city is easily explored by foot, bicycle, or, as many locals favour, donkey.
There are several museums, including the Lamu Museum, home to the island’s ceremonial horn (called siwa); other museums are dedicated to Swahili culture and to the local postal service. Notable buildings in Lamu town include:
Lamu Fort: Fumo Madi ibn Abi Bakr, the Sultan of Pate, started to build the fort on the seafront, to protect members of his unpopular government. He died in 1809, before the first storey of the fort was completed. The fort was completed by the early 1820s.
Riyadha Mosque: Habib Salih, a Sharif with family connections to the Hadramaut, Yemen, settled on Lamu in the 1880s, and became a highly respected religious teacher. Habib Salih had great success gathering students around him and in 1900 the Riyadha Mosque was built. He introduced Habshi Maulidi, where his students sang verse passages accompanied by tambourines. After his death in 1935 his sons continued the Madrassa, which became one of the most prestigious centers for Islamic Studies in East Africa. The Mosque is the centre for the Maulidi Festival, which are held every year during the last week of the month of the Prophet´s birth. During this festival pilgrims from Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Zanzibar and Tanzania join the locals to sing the praise of Mohammad.
Donkey Sanctuary: Since the island has no motorised vehicles, transportation and other heavy work is done with the help of donkeys. There are some 2000-3000 working donkeys on the island. Dr. Elisabeth Svendsen of the The Donkey Sanctuary in England first visited Lamu in 1985. Worried by the conditions for the donkeys, the Sanctuary was opened in 1987. The Sanctuary provides treatment to all donkeys free of charge.