Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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An island apart

The hippies are gone, replaced by jetsetting bohos, but Kenya's secret island is still the height of indolence

Remote even by Kenyan standards, Lamu Island is one of an archipelago of small mangrove-covered islands two degrees south of the equator where the Indian Ocean caresses twelve kilometres of empty beaches and a constant warm breeze ruffles the palms.

The largest settlement on the island — also called Lamu — is possibly the oldest community in sub-Saharan Africa and has changed little over time. Portuguese explorers, Turkish traders and British colonials have all passed through Lamu, but for centuries this part of the African coast belonged to the Sultan of Oman. By the 1500s, Lamu was exporting timber, ivory, amber, spices — and slaves. As trade flourished, Arab settlements inevitably absorbed local influences and the distinct Afro-Arab Swahili culture emerged.

When Britain forced the closure of the coastal slave markets in 1873, the island declined rapidly and nothing much happened until the 1960s. That’s when Lamu became a haven for the “turn on, tune in, drop out” generation and was known as “the black hole of laidbackness.” The hippies have long gone but the laidback feel of the place remains. With only two cars on Lamu, if you really must get around you’ll have to hop aboard a dhow or hire one of the island’s 3000 donkeys.

Nowadays, many visitors, like us, come to relax after a game safari in central Kenya. Our Dash 8 from Nairobi landed at the airstrip on Manda Island, just across the channel from Lamu. A grizzled local, dressed in a somewhat grubby sarong-like striped kikoi robe and close fitting kafia cap, approached us and asked “Peponi Hotel?” We nodded. “I’m Abdullah,” he said, piling our two small bags on to his hand-cart and leading us to the jetty for the 20 minute trip by motorized dhow to the hotel at Shela, two kilometres south of Lamu.

Lounge with Mick Jagger

Arriving on the hotel patio, we were greeted with a cool drink and asked if we would like to choose that evening’s dinner. We decided on tuna carpaccio and spicy crab. The remaining shreds of travel strain drifted off with the warm breeze.

The Peponi likes to call itself “the house that grew into a hotel.” Danish-born Aage Korschen took over a derelict property, once home to the island’s British colonial commissioner, and opened the Peponi Hotel in 1967 with four rooms. It now has 24 rooms in elegantly simple whitewashed cottages facing the channel between Lamu and Manda Islands. Still operated by the Korschen family, it’s a place that inspires utter langour.

The Peponi’s style owes much to the guiding hand of Carol Korschen. In her flowing Swahili-inspired robes, she oversees the dining room with an efficient grace. In the evening, local expats come by to gossip at the only watering hole in Shela — Mick Jagger has been spotted there — and guests dine on whatever came in from the sea that day, enlivened with chili, lime, ginger and garlic. The result is arguably the best food in East Africa.

That night, we fell asleep to the sound of the Indian Ocean slapping gently against the wall beneath our patio. But at sunrise I awoke to the muezzin’s call to prayer from the Mnarani Mosque just behind the hotel. A golden sun warmed the walls of our room, the curtains billowed in the breeze and the ceiling fan softly swished below the mosquito netting: the dusty, pot-holed roads of central Kenya seemed worlds away. While my wife slept, I got up and walked along the edge of the sea wall to the dining room where coffee was ready. I was beginning to understand why this place is listed in a book about 1000 places to see before you die.

Village life

After breakfast, we walked into the village of Shela, just outside the hotel. It was already hot and few people were about. We passed the mosque with its intricate plaster embellishments and turning a corner surprised two women who quickly drew their black bui-buis across their faces.

A young man sitting in the shade smiled at us. “Would you like to have a Swahili meal this evening?” he asked. But we declined knowing that we could arrange the same thing at the Peponi. He didn’t seem too disappointed. Donkeys laden with building materials ambled by — likely bound for houses being built for more well-to-do expats. The village is certainly changing but appears to still be a traditional Muslim community at heart.

That first afternoon, a feeling of utter idleness overcame us, and happily the pattern repeated itself each day. One afternoon, we started to walk along the sea wall towards Lamu — but the sun was too fierce for our pale northern bodies and we gave up after 10 minutes. The urge to return to our shady patio with a gin and tonic and pretend to read a book was just too strong to resist.

This bench is your bench

One morning, we took the hotel dhow into Lamu to explore the town. The jetty was a hive of activity as dhows were being loaded and unloaded below the sea wall built by the British. Fifty metres inland, a continuous alley serves as Lamu’s main street. Scattered along it length are a few galleries, craft shops and the inevitable Internet café.

At one point the alley widens out to form the town’s main square shaded by two immense casuarina trees. A labyrinth of passages, barely wide enough for two donkeys to pass, meander back from the waterfront providing much needed shade between the thatched whitewashed buildings. Most houses date from the 18th-century and are made of coral-rag block embellished with carved plaster ornamentation as well as ornately carved window and door frames.

Stopping at the entrance to one house, our guide asked: “Do you see the seats on either side of the door? We have a very old custom here that requires a visitor to knock three times. If no one answers the visitor must wait for 10 or 15 minutes before knocking again. That seat for the waiting visitor is called a maiteka. It’s built by the owner outside his door — but he doesn’t own it.”

We left our guide and walked back to the waterfront to visit the Lamu Museum housed in an old Swahili warehouse and to stop and admire the work of craftsmen creating beautiful pieces out of African mahogany, ebony and other woods. We could have headed to Certainly the Swahili House Museum in a restored traditional house near the Yumbe House Hotel. And, if we still had the energy, the restored Lamu Fort, the German Postal Museum and the donkey sanctuary on the waterfront.

But that familiar feeling was coming over us and we boarded the next dhow back to the hotel. It was time to take it easy again.

The coming boom

On our last evening, we took a sunset trip aboard a sailing dhow, one of the oldest and most reliable boats ever created. With a mahogany frame, mangrove wood ribs and mast, and rigged with a simple lateen sail its design has not changed in centuries. As Babou and Yousef sailed us leisurely though the channels between the mangroves, we talked to them about life on Lamu. They both saw their future in tourism. The population of the island has almost doubled in 15 years and more and more Europeans are building expensive homes along the main channel.

But there’s big trouble ahead in paradise. A major international shipping port is planned for the nearby mainland, complete with an airport, an oil refinery, a pipeline from Lamu to Southern Sudan and three major resort developments. “Never mind the UNESCO heritage site,” the local imam is reported as saying recently, “this will swallow the Swahili population.”

While Lamu’s sense of mystery threatens to become a thing of the past, at present it is still a living Muslim community and its concessions to tourism have not yet spoiled its character. And what’s not to like about a place that relies on donkeys for transportation? In Lamu, as an old Swahili proverb goes, “a man without a donkey is a donkey.”

It would be nice to go back to Lamu some day and explore the nooks and crannies of the old town that I missed — but I know what would happen. I’d start out from the Peponi and be overcome by a sudden bout of idleness. I would say to myself, “there’s always tomorrow,” knowing perfectly well that the same thing would happen again. There would be nothing for it but to surrender. And relax. But if I go back I had better do it soon.

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