12 March 2019

Lamu Island: annual New Year's Day dhow race

When we learned about the annual dhow race held on New Year's Day at Shela, we made plans to be there! Hassan (who had taken us snorkeling and prepared our picnic on the beach) was one of the contestants along with seven other crews and their boats.

These guys had quite the fun as they waited for the race to begin! I think they also enjoyed showing off for me :)

Spectators gathered from all around the archipelago to see this annual event take place.

Each team stood in a line near their boat, eagerly waiting for the signal to begin! The race organizers had to wait for the 'wind to wake-up' before giving the signal to start. And they were off, making a dash for their boats!

The boat from Peponi Hotel (the sponsors of the event) took 1st place, earning a nice cash reward. When they completed the race, they came back to where the spectators were and actually sank their boat, sail and all. Apparently it's a tradition! [Don't worry, the boat was okay, and was pulled up out of the water later.}

Here we are after the race with Hassan, and his brother. They were disappointed in their 5th-place finish, but we were impressed!

Never give up, indeed! I know they will back in the race again next year!

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"The nature of cross-cultural ministry can take a personal and relational toll. Missionaries must value their physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational health as much as they value the work they do. Surely we can grant permission for them to find appropriate respite from the rigors of their ministry. Rest isn’t a luxury; it’s a God-mandated necessity."
   ~ Michele Phoenix (author and speaker with international sensitivities)

11 March 2019

Lamu Island: donkeys, donkeys, and more donkeys! Another 'vlog' post of sorts, for your viewing pleasure

This guy loads heavy coral stone on the back of this donkey, to be used in construction

An interesting sight on one of my strolls around the town

We only saw four cars during our week at Lamu town, and they were only on the wide road near the sea. Donkeys are the primary means of moving all the cargo that arrives by boat on the island. Donkeys and mikokoteni (large hand-pulled carts) are the only thing that can fit in the narrow, winding pathways of the town. As we did our shopping we had to always be alert to their movement, as they have the right-of-way!

Donkeys get a drink of water outside the Donkey Sanctuary

Donkeys are the backbone of the economy in Lamu Town, with an estimated 3,000 'beasts of burden' living there. They're used in agriculture and also in carrying household provisions and building materials. When goods are delivered from the mainland to this island, they're off-loaded from the boats and placed on the backs of donkeys to be delivered to their final destination.

Dr. Elizabeth Svendsen founded the Donkey Sanctuary in 1987 after seeing the poor condition of donkeys while on holiday at Lamu Island. Since then the health of the donkeys has improved considerably and the primitive practices of treating wounds and illness has been reduced. The Sanctuary provides treatment to all donkeys free of charge. A competition for the donkey in the best condition is held annually.

One day I took a stroll in this rural area between Lamu and Shela towns

08 March 2019

Manda Island, snorkeling and a fun picnic on the beach - viewed through a series of short videos (a vlog post of sorts)

Hassan's young (in-training) assistant for the day

The café below is where the idea for our picnic on the beach started. While strolling around one morning, Gloria and I happened upon Tamarind Tree Café, actually built around a tree. We decided to give it a try and climbed up to the top floor, where we enjoyed the view and a mid-morning soda.

As we were leaving, the owner of the establishment asked if we were interested in snorkeling, which indeed we were! She introduced us to her husband, Hassan, and we arranged a day to meet. Somewhere along in the conversation, a picnic on Manda Island was also mentioned and we negotiated a price for our upcoming adventurous day.

After a few mishaps as Hassan attempted to organize things plus some difficulty getting the outboard engine to actually work, our first stop was the coral reef near Manda Island. As always we thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully colored fish! I'll never cease to marvel at the stunning view that reveals itself when you wear a mask and put your face in the water. Wow, it's like entering another world!

At some point while I was snorkeling, my leg bumped into the barnacles on the coral and caused a rather deep gash at the back of my ankle. When I climbed back up on the boat and discovered it was bleeding a lot, I tore off a piece of my leso and wrapped it around my ankle. Hassan insisted we inform Gloria and then get me to the hospital, but I didn't want to interrupt her enjoyment. Instead, I just kept pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding. Later when Gloria (a nurse) joined us at the boat, she said the wound was deep enough for stitches. But I was comfortable with sticking to our plan for the picnic! [The gash did stop bleeding and eventually the wound healed.]

The beautiful site for our picnic on the beach, in the shade of lovely acacia trees

Our view of Shela beach across the channel, plus some fishing boats

Yummy veggies cooking

Our fish grilling over the open fire

I loved the simple style of how Hassan cooked, using the materials at-hand. It reminded me so much of my many years of camping.

And - oh, my! - the meal was absolutely delicious! Just when Gloria and I finished our large portions of fish and veggies, Hassan offered us fresh fruit. Of course, we couldn't refuse the second course.

Our adventurous outing had come to an end and it was time to return to Lamu Island. It was a very fun day we won't soon forget. I hope you enjoyed the videos and photos of our picnic on the beach! Perhaps you, too, will visit Lamu and Manda islands some day.

[FYI - A 'vlog' is a type of blog where the medium is primarily videos.]

06 March 2019

Lamu Island: boats, boats, and more boats!

I chatted with these cute boys for a while about the boat they were building.
I imagine they were dreaming of one day operating a real boat when they get old enough

Because Lamu is an island there is constant movement of boats to the mainland, other nearby islands, or even from one town to another (like Lamu town to Shela). In the past it was only dhows (wooden boats with sails), but more and more boatmen are now using diesel engines to power their boats. Gloria and I commonly use buses and vans (called 'matatu') to move around various parts of Kenya, so it was an easy switch to use boats while we were at Lamu.

The video above and the picture below were taken a few days before a highly anticipated annual boat race on January 1st; naturally it was only for experienced adults. But before that big day, several youngsters held their own race with their small homemade boats. 

There are two towns on this side of Lamu Island - Lamu and Shela. They're just two miles apart, but during high tide the only way to move between the two is by boat. We went there a couple of times, once for a swim and lunch, plus also to watch the annual dhow race.

Beautiful Shela beach and sand dunes. I took this photo from Manda Island.
It's believed that the dunes conceal the remains of long-deserted settlements.

These guys are making a sail

Many earn their living by diving in the ocean for seafood.
This guy wanted to sell his recently-caught lobster to me.

People alight from a boat after docking at Lamu's quite busy pier

"Slow travel advocates savor the journey, travelling by train or boat or bicycle, or even on foot. They take time to plug into the local culture instead of racing through a list of tourist traps."    ~ Carl Honore, In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed

04 March 2019

Lamu Island: living like the locals at fascinating Lamu town

My good friend, Gloria, and I thoroughly enjoyed our first-ever visit to Lamu Island. Wow, it's so different from the rest of Kenya that we almost thought we had arrived at a different country. Our time there was a quite enjoyable Christmas vacation!

I had a crazy idea to ride a donkey... and I did it! When I asked some young guys if it was possible, one of them politely helped me.

Street food - roasted octopus
It's been said that the best way to travel is to live like the locals... and that's exactly what we did. We stayed right next to Lamu town's produce market, doing our grocery shopping there or at the small shops along the narrow passageways. When we didn't do our own cooking, we enjoyed sampling a variety of the street food.

Street food - pancakes

Enjoying fresh coconut water and staying hydrated

An example of the narrow passageways throughout Lamu town

Outdoor market area near Mkunguni Square
(I took the picture while up high at the Lamu Fort Museum)

Mkunguni Square is a common meeting place (I took the picture while at the Lamu Fort Museum)

Mkunguni Square became a crucial meeting point 100 years ago. It's named after the Mkungu tree, which is native to the area. The town square is situated right in the middle of the Lamu Old Town which was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2001. The square is part of the Lamu Fort Museum, which came under the National Museums of Kenya in 1984.

I grew up playing the game of Carem and was pleased to observe its popularity among the men of Lamu. I watched them play during the early evenings in friendly, but quite competitive matches. I even chatted a bit with the current champion of the game. He and others were surprised that I knew the game. When they asked me to join them, I politely declined :)

While touring the old Lamu Fort earlier in the day, Gloria and I learned that a wedding was to be held there that evening. When loud Taarab music wafted throughout the town square coming from the fort, I went to take a look and was invited in! I only watched for 20-30 minutes, as the women arrived, and shot this short video (with permission). It was all so very fascinating! 

In the evenings at Mkunguni Square, local TV news was projected onto a large white board. After the news, Taarab music was placed quite loudly. It incorporates Swahili, Arabic, Indian, and Egyptian cultures. The lyrics are Swahili poetry, often containing a double meaning.

Masjid Riyadha was built in 1892, when a renowned Islamic scholar settled at Lamu and began religious instruction.
The mosque was declared a national monument in April 2018.

Masjid Rawdha is a very active Mosque at Lamu's sea front.
It was built in 1877 and renovated in 2017.

We enjoyed strolling around and seeing various features like these two old mosques. We also visited three museums at Lamu town. 

The Lamu Archipelago lies two degrees south of the equator, just south of the Somali border with Kenya. It's almost directly east of Nairobi. The archipelago consists of over 65 islands, the largest of which are Pate (not shown on map below), Manda, and Lamu.  

Lamu town's current population is about 6,000. The people are of mixed origin and referred to as Swahili (an Arabic word meaning 'of the coast'). Like all of Kenya's coastal regions, Lamu town's culture results from interaction between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Europeans down through the centuries. The vast majority currently are Muslim, with over 40 mosques in the town. Lamu's current livelihood depends mainly on maritime industries, export of mangrove poles, and fishing.

As Kenya’s oldest living town founded in 1370, Lamu (situated on Lamu island) has a rich and colorful history. The town was one of the many original Swahili settlements that stretched from Somalia to Mozambique. It remained a thriving port town through the turbulent Portuguese invasions and later the Omani domination of the 14th century.

Originally the islands were home to the Bajun, but their traditions vanished almost entirely with the arrival of the Arabs in 1441. Lamu town was visited by Zheng He of China in the early 1400s. Vasco da Gama's Portuguese fleet were the first Europeans to discover the East African coast and Lamu surrendered to their rule in 1505. 

Historically a significant city-state, Lamu has traded for the best part of 1000 years, first under the nominal control of various Arabic magnates, then under the Portuguese, and finally at the behest of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, before eventually achieving independence with the rest of Kenya in 1963. While its exports included timber, amber, cowrie shells, oil seed, turtle shell, rhinoceros horn, and spices, the cash cows were ivory and slavery. In 1873, the British forced Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar to close down the slave markets. 

The Swahili houses made of coral rag still surviving today, were built during the 19th century. Until it was discovered by travelers in the 1970's, Lamu existed in a state of humble obscurity, which allowed it to remain well preserved for tourists today. By the 1990's many new resorts were developed making Lamu Archipelago is a premier beach destination.

The physical appearance and the character of the town has changed little over the centuries. The narrow, winding streets accommodate only pedestrian or donkey traffic. Lamu town is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as 'the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa'.

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Be sure to view all 25 of my videos from Lamu by clicking here, as they play one after the other.