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Lamu: A journey back in time

Lamu: A journey back in time

Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage site with origins traced back to the late 14th century.

For first-time visitors to Lamu, an ancient town on Kenya’s coastal strip, it must appear like a trip back in time. There are, apart from the County Commissioner’s official vehicle and a TukTuk ambulance, no cars on the island, just the same as it was during my own first visit in the late 1970s.

Therefore, thankfully, when walking, one does not need to dodge crazy matatus or even crazier boda bodas although perhaps one does have to look out for the traditional “mkokotenis” or push carts and of course the over 3,200 donkeys, which roam the beach and town freely unless they are loaded with goods and merchandise to carry, earning their living.


Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, has its origins traced back to the late 14th century and was one of the very few such centers inhabited ever since without interruption.

Tourism, alongside fishing, are the two mainstream economic activities on the island, although the craft of building dhows is still practiced, today more relying on repairs of existing vessels than creating news ones from scratch. Other woodcraft is also evident, as seen in the richly ornamented doors of houses that are artfully carved and inlaid, or the chests, chairs, and Lamu beds which have found their way across the globe.

Lamu though is not a “regular” resort town, and mass tourism is definitely not welcomed here. Individual travelers are warmly welcomed to spend a few days, or even weeks or months on the island, as long as they are respectful of local customs. Bare feet are ok, probably driving every shoe salesman mad, but that is the way it is here. Wrapping a “kikoy” [sarong] around oneself is also ok – the locals do it, the expats do it, and tourists may also do it, as long as they learn to tie a good knot and not lose the cloth after a few steps. Formal in Lamu means wearing a “kanzu” [a light-colored floor length tunic] which the island has in common with central Uganda where Buganda menfolk wear it on weekends, even to church and to official functions.


Lamu is the closest Africa probably has to what Bali used to be in the 60s and 70s before big tourism there turned everything, what then attracted those in the know of that island, on its head.

Here in Lamu, thankfully, there are no large resorts, and while on other islands of the archipelago new resorts were built, as were large private residences, the number of bedrooms were kept small and in line with the character of Lamu, because the locals would not have it any other way.


Lamu, exhibiting presently at the Magical Kenya Tourism Expo in Nairobi, has made a name for itself in recent years with a number of festivals which draw in large crowds, often filling every available room and bed, so anyone thinking of attending next month’s Lamu Cultural Festival would be well advised to book right this instant to avoid disappointment.

My return to Lamu reminded me what special appeal parts of the Kenya coast do hold and ideally one should submerge phones, laptops, and alike gadgets at the Manda Island jetty on arrival and only retrieve them when leaving the Lamu archipelago, although it may be tempting to just stay on and forget about the rest of the world for a little longer if not forever.

Few places offer such tranquility and peace, where tourists are left alone – there are none of the notorious beach boys harassing the wagenis [visitors] – and where miles of empty beaches invite to take a boat, be dropped off for the day with a picnic hamper, a cool box full of one’s favorite drinks, a sun umbrella, and a beach towel, to read a good book while the waves of the Indian Ocean hug the beach between changing tides or just going into a semi-trance dreaming the day away.

Lamu is open for business 365 days a year, and one more during leap years. The archipelago can be accessed by air from Wilson Airport Nairobi through scheduled flights with Safarilink, Air Kenya, and a few other airlines as well as from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport through Jambojet, a Kenya Airways’ subsidiary which flies at least twice a day using a Bombardier Q400NG on the route.

All photos © Wolfgang H. Thome

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