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Isle's Swahili Culture Preserved

May 22, 1988|ERIC ONSTAD | Onstad is a San Diego free-lance writer living in Nairobi

LAMU, Kenya — In a remote archipelago off the East African coast, this island, with a city of the same name, zealously guards its centuries-old Swahili culture.

Autos are banned. Men in flowing robes, women behind black veils and heavy-laden donkeys still dominate narrow labyrinthine streets. Bathwater meanders through ancient gutters to the sea.

Wailing calls to prayer from 22 mosques echo off terraced-roof patios, courtyards and alcoves of 18th-Century coral-stone buildings, then dissipate offshore in the gentle gusts of the Indian Ocean.

Fishermen navigate by the stars in the same kind of dhow (sailing vessels) that brought their ancestors here from Arabia, India and Persia generations ago.

The tropical island of Lamu, two degrees south of the Equator, is a vital living museum and a hideaway beach haven.

At one end of the island waves crash on miles of deserted coastline, while in town crowded avenues pulse with traditions of yesterday.

Ever since ancient times, when the region earned a write-up in a 2nd-Century Greek mariners' handbook, the East African coast has been a trading hub and melting pot.

Evolving Culture

Arabian traders sailed the northeast monsoons, bringing salt, metal goods and their Islamic religion to coastal Africans, who sold ivory, tortoise shells and slaves.

The hybrid Swahili culture and language evolved over hundreds of years as a succession of city-states, monarchies and dynasties threw together Africans, Arabians, Indians and, later, Portuguese into coastal communities that had little contact with inland tribes.

By the 1700s the town of Lamu was a prosperous port, a flourishing urban center and birthplace of Swahili art, culture and architecture.

During Lamu's golden age, craftsmen created ornate plaster friezes and richly patterned wooden doors for town houses graced with garden courtyards and hot and cold running water.

Noblemen sported locally woven gold and silver cloth, while young artists performed original poems in streets and coffeehouses.

Rhythm of Religion

The street poets and noblemen are gone but the town still bustles with a close-knit street life that ebbs and flows with the Islamic worship schedule.

When evening prayers let out, shopkeepers and artisans reopen workplaces as youngsters resume hide-and-seek games down winding passageways and Islamic elders confer on streetside benches.

To explore Lamu's seductive maze of streets, mosques and carved doors, start on Usita wa Mui, the main avenue that runs parallel to the waterfront.

The Jumaa or Friday Mosque at the northern end of the street is one of the oldest (built in 1511) and most established of Lamu's numerous Islamic temples.

The southern end of the avenue opens onto the town square, flanked by a massive fort built in 1821, but most recently used as a prison. It is closed for restoration, but tours can be arranged through the Lamu Museum.

Crowded inland and uphill from the Usita wa Mui are the 200-year-old buildings of the old town, described by one writer as "almost Cubist architecture."

Three-foot-thick windowless walls and facades turn corners, rise, fall and disappear at odd angles, hiding airy courtyards.

Mohammed's Birthday

Up the hill and south of the fort, the Riyadha Mosque attracts thousands of East African pilgrims each year who celebrate Mohammed's birthday with a week of drumming, singing and dancing.

The Maulidi festival, transposed from the Islamic calendar to the Western calendar, advances 11 days each year. In 1987 it began Nov. 1; this year it's set for Oct. 21.

Farther up the hill one of the oldest Islamic pillar tombs and the only national monument of Lamu Island marks the outskirts of town.

Over the crest of the hill, past huts of mud and thatch, the urban landscape turns pastoral. Groves of mango and palm trees dot the countryside where peasants work the land and wealthy city families maintain second homes.

Back in town, shoppers on Usita wa Mui haggle over prices of carved chests, inlaid furniture, brightly colored wraparound kanga skirts and jewelry.

Cannons Stand Ready

Along the waterfront, where 19th-Century European-influenced buildings feature verandas and balconies, antique cannons stand at the ready, as if to repel intrusions of modern life.

Lamu's Swahili inhabitants--who since the 1500s have survived invasion by the Portuguese, domination by arch-rival Pate Island and occupation by the sultan of Oman--are determined to resist commercial forces that have transformed Kenya's southern coast into a string of posh resort hotels, says Sheikh Ahmed Badawy, Lamu's education officer.

In a country proud of its Tusker beer, Islamic city fathers here have decreed that liquor sales be limited to two tourist hotels on opposite ends of the island.

One of them, Petley's Inn, overlooks the harbor from a restored 19th-Century structure. A 10-minute boat ride from town, the white plaster cottages of the Peponi ( paradise in Swahili) Hotel sit at the gateway to seven miles of deserted beach.

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