So, it’s no secret that I agree with Karen Blixen, who wrote “There is no world without Nairobi’s streets,” but I have to tell you that I love a lot more about Kenya than just her largest city. And, this week, with all the news from the coast of Kenya, my mind is returning there more often than usual, and my heart is full of fond memories and love and longing for peace.
I know that Lamu is a world away, and many of you may have never even heard of it so I thought I’d tell you a bit about the Kenyan Coast as I remember it and maybe you can join me in praying that peace will be restored, people will be protected and, somehow, God will be glorified.
(Note: the attacks this week did not take place in Lamu town, which is the place I am describing, but while Lamu Town is very unique in many ways, it is similar to other places on the coast in lots of ways as well.)
The Lamu that I knew was a place frozen in time, linked to the world by a ferry and a few boats to an airstrip that brought tourists to town. There was a car on the island. It belonged to the police but was too wide to fit down most of the streets. People walked. Or rode donkeys. Lots of donkeys. So many, in fact, there’s a donkey sanctuary.
Yes, you read that right. A donkey sanctuary. It’s one of the first sights you see when you climb up the steep stairs from the dock, leaving behind the little boat that brought you across the bay and right into a time warp. Once you arrive in Lamu, it’s easy to fall into the rhythm of the place. It’s punctuated by the calls to prayer and the fishermen coming and going and the tide rising and falling. The very life of Lamu is a lilt of activity, rest, activity, rest….on and on…sound and silence, sound and silence. Much like the sound of the sea that surrounds it.
In the morning, the fishermen go out to sea, skimming the waves in ancient dhows. For a fee, you can spend the day sailing, though it feels much more like soaring. Lunch is whatever you catch, cooked over an open flame on a secluded beach nearby.
For dinner, you can follow Ali Baba (No, I’m not kidding. He gave me his card.) to his home where his family will prepare a traditional Swahili meal, served by candlelight while his children serenade you. Two words: seafood samosas. Oh my. If you know a bit of Kiswahili, you can laugh to yourself as he tells his children to sing “Jambo Bwana,” and they beg not to. But, they do. Because this is Kenya, and you’re a tourist.
Once back at your guest house, you climb the old stone stairs to the roof where you watch the stars come out and the streets come to life. The electricity went off hours ago so the sky twinkles above and the candles twinkle below. The singing at a wedding celebration provides the soundtrack to this cinema of real life, this dreaming wide awake, this mysterious place and its beautiful people. And, finally, quiet fills the night as the last call of the day comes from the mosque next door.
You sleep fitfully under mosquito nets, sweating with the heat and humidity before waking to a beautiful, crisp morning and a breakfast of the freshest fruit. Perhaps you have your breakfast at the Hapa House.
The Hapa Hapa House, we called it. Smoothies, whole fried fish and a free tutor to teach you the intricacies of playing bao (mancala). “Go safari, go safari, go safari, sleep….Go safari, go safari, go safari, eat…” If it’s raining, and you can handle the reggae music, you can stay here and play all day.
But, there’s too much to see to stay in one place for long, even on a rainy day. Gems are tucked into the winding streets of this old town, but you’ll have to seek them out. Gelato, anyone? We found it there, along with a beautiful, young woman ready to practice her English and make new friends.
As we walked down another street, an older woman called me into her shop to show me something, but my Swahili wasn’t quite up to the task of understanding her so she wrapped my head, shoved me in front of a mirror, pointed at me and said, “You! Arab!” I had no way to explain that my grandmother’s family is Lebanese so I smiled, accepted her gift and used the only word I had: “Asante.” That green silk scarf is in my closet still.
During the restful times, the doors of Lamu are shut. Heavy wooden doors carved in the style of the Arabs who settled here. You can still watch them at work. Fathers, Sons, Grandsons…all working together, handing skills from one generation to the next.
When siesta ends, the doors open, and people peer out of them, watching as you pass, greeting you as you go. Children race down ancient streets, donkeys pull carts, women sell wares. As the sun begins to set, they light fires, grill fish and visit, welcoming you to join the life of this town, the life of Lamu.