Design Anthology - Asia Pacific Edition
Secrets in Lamu
A flâneur is an urban explorer — a connoisseur of the street. In our rotating column, guests share their musings, observations and critiques of the urban environment in cities around the world. In this issue, author Sarah Bullen explores the ancient winding streets and mesmerising landscapes of the Kenyan island of Lamu
You're in trouble if you get your wardrobe wrong for a stay on Lamu, the storied island off the Kenyan coast. The tiny winding lanes that snake up and through the ancient villages are filled with sand, and that's sure death for most footwear.
Tonight we're weaving our way up through Shela Village to a nightclub built in the dunes. Shela is the boho-chic centre of the island, in contrast to the more traditional Lamu Town, and we're ending a full week of writing with a night of dancing at MaraRaha Village. The lounge was designed by owner Wamuhu Waweru with an emphasis on sustainability and local materials, and is, as Waweru avers, ‘definitely the most diverse place on the island'.
There's sand everywhere! Any pretences of shoewearing have been abandoned as we pant up the dune towards the eccentric venue, which rises on mangrove poles above the village like a chaotic scene from Mad Max. Here, slipping off your shoes is just one of the levels of surrendering to the elements.
Our eclectic group of writers, poets and scriptwriters has fallen in love with the stylish island and its many secrets. For centuries, Lamu was the most important trade centre in East Africa and the epicentre of gold, spices and slaves. Over hundreds of years, invaders and traders left marks on the island, giving us a glimpse into their ancient ways.
‘I feel like we're back in biblical times,' one author whispers as we get lost in Shela's secret passageways, hidden courtyards and narrow streets. Most villas are built from the traditional coral building blocks mined from Manda Island and brought across by boat and then donkey. The labyrinthine street pattern has its origins in Arab traditions, but the villages are organised according to local Swahili culture, meaning the clusters of dwellings are divided into several small wards (mitaa) where closely related families live together.
We've been waking up just after five a.m. every day as the Islamic call to prayer wafts down from the minaret on the warm wind. One day earlier this week, we went wandering through Shela with a gregarious local named Babu British, spending hours snooping around some of the village's magnificent empty villas. That night we had a storytelling evening under the coral and limestone walls of a villa. ‘Whisper your secrets to the wall,' British urged us. It's tradition to whisper a secret or make a wish into the vidaka (small niches) carved into the walls. Then, like tonight at MaraRaha Village, the real world feels so far away.
Despite the litany of A-listers, celebrities and Italian and British aristocracy who flock to Lamu year-round, the island still retains its ultra-discreet and somewhat mythical appeal. The reason is simple: it's hard as hell to get here. First it's a flight to Nairobi, then another to Lamu Airport, and finally a boat across the channel. But by the time your water taxi pulls up in front of the beachfront market and you see the open verandas of seafront villas, you've left the 21st century behind and all the hassle of getting here is forgiven. You're now in the ancient trading city that seems to have emerged from the sand and mangrove swamps, and all time stands still.