Lamu town is the oldest human settlement continually inhabited in Kenya. Located some 350 km north of Mombasa, near the Somali border, the archipelago of Lamu was occupied from prehistoric times. The origins of the town date back to the XII century. Lamu grew in importance, its port being a major link in the trade between the African inland and the Indian Ocean markets. It first developed in the form of small clusters of stone buildings in the northern part of the present town where the Friday mosque still is. Lamu became one of the many Swahili city states dotting the coast, and as such it had to fight for supremacy in the region.
In 1506 Lamu fell to the invading Portuguese, who monopolized shipping and trade in the Indian Ocean in the XVI and XVII centuries. The town gradually lost its importance and declined. In 1698, the Sultanate of Oman succeeded in overthrowing the Portuguese regime and took control of the region. The coastal trade slowly regained its momentum, leading to a further development of Lamu and the construction, by skilled craftsmen and slave labour, of many houses and palaces. The merchants’ houses were finely decorated with porcelain, and slaves were used to maintain plantations.
In 1813, Lamu invited Seyyid Said Ibn Sultan-al-Busaidi, the Sultan of Oman, to install a garrison to protect the town from the expansionist aim of Mombasa, leading to the construction of the Fort, which was completed in 1821. In 1840 the capital of Seyyid Said was transferred from Oman to Zanzibar, helping Lamu to prosper. In the 1880s the Sultan of Zanzibar was granted the islands of Zanzibar, Maria, Pemba, and Lamu, and a strip of the mainland up to Kipini in the north.
In 1890 the entire coastal strip north of Zanzibar was assigned to the Imperial British East Africa Company. During the British rule, Lamu saw further development until 1901. Then, the building of the railroad from Mombasa to Uganda in 1901 and the transfer of Protectorate government from Mombasa to Nairobi condemned Lamu to a steady decline.
Until the end of the XIX century slaves formed the bulk of the population and provided cheap labour. Freemen consisted of three social groups: land-owning merchants who lived in stone houses, the shariffs who claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, and fishermen and artisans. In the XIX century Lamu became an important religious centre as a result of tarika (The Way of the Prophet) activities introduced by Habib Swaleh, a shariff, who had many ancestors traced directly back to the Prophet Mohammed. The religious annual festival of Maulidi has continued up to the present day, attracting Muslim followers. Lamu has also become an important Islamic and Swahili educational centre in East Africa, owing to the relatively unchanged and conservative character of its Muslim society.
Those visiting Lamu today find a Swahili town almost unchanged in the past century, even though the building of hotels and other amenities to accommodate the growing tourism is diluting the very soul of the area. There are many old houses with their characteristic carved wooden doors and stone benches where to sit and chat. People play Keram, a local game similar to a hand billiard, in the narrow allies and in the main market square, near the Fort. Joinery and carpentry are still thriving, and it is still possible to see dhow building in the shipyard to the north of the town.
The government of Kenya has now decided to build a new deepwater port in Lamu. This is part of a project to link Ethiopia and South Sudan to the sea, and create new communication infrastructure between the three countries. The port, with its job opportunities and increased tourists’ presence, will certainly bring new life to Lamu. However, it will also bring the Swahili ethos to an end. Already today Lamu has lost much of its Swahili flavour for many of the newcomers are unwilling to adopt the local way of life.
Lamu is not new the rise and fall of its fortune. A local poet recorded this in the Al-Inkishafy (The Souls’s Awakening):
How many wealthy men have we not seen
Who in their splendour shone like the sun itself,
Strong in their great hoards of ivory,
Powerful in stocks of silver and gold?
To them the whole world bowed down in homage.
Their lighted mansions glowed with lamps of brass
And crystal, till night seemed like very day …
Their homes were set with Chinese porcelain
And every cup and doblet was engraved …
The men’s halls hummed with chatter, while within
The women’s quarters laughter echoed loud.
The noise of talk and merriment of slaves
Rang out, and cheerful shouts of workmen rose …
And when they went to rest, they had massage
And fans and gay-robed women for their ease
And music-makers, playing and singing songs
Ceaselessly till they slept …
And yet, for all their wealth and proud grandeur
They took, with Death’s great Caravan, their leave
And journeyed to the mansions of the grave
And crumbled like blowing sand, and came to dust.
Their lighted mansions echo emptily;
High in the painted rafters flutter bats,
There are no murmurings, no happy shouts,
And on carved bedsteads spiders spin their webs.
Owls hoot in the solitude of the ruined halls
And quail and gamebirds scuttle and cry below.
On painted curtain-rails now vultures perch,
And young doves pout and coo between themselves.