Lamu town is the oldest living Swahili town in Kenya, comparable to others such as Zanzibar in Tanzania. The town dates back to at least the 12th century. Since this time Lamu has flourished as a maritime trading centre whose main population, the Swahili, engaged in international trade, fishing and farming. The architecture of Lamu is uniquely Swahili, with its narrow streets, storied buildings, intricately carved wooden doors and numerous mosques. Lamu is also unique in that it is host to three museums and a Fort with an impressive exhibition space, namely: Lamu Museum, known for its exquisite Swahili ethnography exhibits, Lamu Fort, built in 1814 by Bwana Zeid Ngumi the last Sultan of Lamu ,German Post Office Museum showing the post office when it was operational in the late 19-20 th Century., and Swahili House Museum, a restored 18th century house, reflecting the life of privileged Lamu Swahilis. Lamu Museum can arrange guided tours to various archaeological and historical sites, whether to neighbouring Manda Island or further afield to Pate Island, where the ruins of the earliest known Swahili settlement of Shanga – dated to the 8th century AD – can be visited.
The Lamu Society was formed in the early 1980s to offer a forum for ideas and projects that would encourage the conservation of the island community’s historic material culture. The Society has been instrumental in raising funds and assisting in the work required to document, preserve and restore aspects of earlier time periods and hence in the development of the Lamu Museum. The Society’s publications focus on the history and preservation of the island’s cultural heritage, whilst its periodic newsletter informs members about events and ongoing aspects of interest.
Since the 19th century Lamu has been regarded as an important religious centre in East Africa. Every year, thousands of pilgrims from the region flock to Lamu town for the famous Maulidi, or Milad-un-Nabi, celebrations that are held during the third month of the Muslim calendar to mark the birth of the Prophet Muhammed. The East African Maulidi is believed to have been started by Habib Swaleh Jamalely, a Comorian Arab who emigrated to Lamu and established himself as a scholar and doctor of traditional Arabic medicine. He was a pious man whose deeds are still emulated today, as exemplified by Maulidi. The Maulidi celebrations are known to bring people from as far as the Comoros, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
lamu heritage attractions
Lamu is a dominant cultural centre reputable for its historic past and traditional socio-cultural traditions. As such visitors to Lamu can enjoy a large and diverse collection of heritage and cultural attractions. At the district level, Lamu has the remains of many heritage sites. These range from towns, like Shanga, Paté and Manda to hundreds of monuments, like Siyu Fort. Some of these sites, such as Manda, are easily accessible, while others are located in thick vegetation making access difficult. The development of access to these areas is currently being addressed by the site’s management team.
world heritage site since 2001
Lamu was listed as a World Heritage Site on the 14 December 2001. This landmark status came after 28 years of strict conservation of Lamu Old Town. As a national monument the town has many fascinating architectural characteristics, unrivalled by any other Swahili town along the East African littoral. The old town has approximately 532 houses. About 496 of these houses are privately owned, 23 are considered public and 13 are religious buildings mainly mosques. The town has survived the pressure of modern destruction and development by both government and private developers. The town’s well-conserved architectural setting of narrow streets, divided by blocks of lined houses, has fascinated many visitors. Perhaps of most appeal are the stone walled houses in which flat roofs are supported by painted mangrove poles.
The interior of a typical Lamu house is divided by two or three long galleries, with at least one or two self-contained rooms. The walls are covered with geometric plaster designs and wall niches. Lamu town has several buildings of importance including the Lamu Fort and Yumbe the former house of a Lamu Sultan. Aside from Lamu’s physical heritage the town has a rich living culture. For almost a century, each calendar year sees Lamu flooded with religious tourists from across the globe, here to attend the popular Maulidi Festival.
About 20,000 religious tourists come to the town to attend this Festival, during the Islamic month of Rabil awal. The climax of the Maulidi celebrations comes in the final week of this month. At this time various traditional Swahili dances from the neighbouring towns of Paté, Siyu, Ndau, Faza and Matondoni are hosted at the Riadha Mosque grounds to entertain the pilgrims. Taking advantage of the sombre week of mfungo sita, (Rabil awal) Lamu Museum also arranges a series of cultural events, such as traditional dhow races, bao games, donkey races, henna painting and Islamic calligraphy competitions.
Typically during the month of August, though occasionally occurring later in the year, Lamu’s second large festival is held. The Lamu Cultural Festival is organised by the Lamu Cultural Promotion Group. It is a three-day Swahili cultural festival that combines traditional dances, indoor and outdoor cultural activities and an exhibition of Lamu’s rich material culture. The Cultural Festival, like the Maulidi, also draws crowds as large as 20,000.
Lamu’s material culture is best shown by its carved doors and traditional furniture which can be viewed all over the town. There are almost 18 woodcarving workshops in Lamu mainly producing Swahili doors, furniture and smaller artefacts, such as the miniature dhows that are popular with tourists. One of the busiest workshops in the town is the Skanda Woodcarving Workshop, this was opened about 50 years ago and is credited with having trained hundreds of woodcarvers who are now scattered all over Kenya’s major towns. Visitors are welcome to view woodcarving classes at the workshops. There are also gift and curio shops scattered around the Old Town, selling quality local items.
One of the reasons for Lamu’s inscription on the UNESCO heritage list is its unique social-cultural life, which has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. A traditionally conservative lifestyle is still maintained by many Lamu households. Lamu’s female Muslim population still predominately wear bui bui’s, and donkeys remain the major form of transport in the town.
© National Museums of Kenya, 2009