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Lamu Old Town*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Lamu coast.jpg
View of the seaside, Lamu Town
State Party  Kenya
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iv, vi
Reference 1055
Region** Africa
Inscription history
Inscription 2001  (25th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.
Lamu Archipelago
Map of Kenya showing the islands
Lamu Island Lamu Town †•
Manda Island Manda Town ‡
Manda Airport
Pate Island Faza †
Pate Town
--Rulers of Pate
---- Bwana Mkuu
---- Bwana Tamu
---- Fumo Madi
Shanga ‡
Kiwayu Island
† Administrative Centre
Archaeological site
World Heritage Site

Lamu town is the largest town on Lamu Island, which in turn is a part of the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya.

Lamu town is also the headquarters of Lamu District and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



Lamu, Kenya's oldest living town, was one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa.

There are some other accounts that mention Chinese ships of Zheng He's fleet sinking near Lamu Island in Kenya in 1415. Survivors are said to have settled in the island and married local women.[1][2] However, the authenticity of this story is disputed.[3]

The port of Lamu has existed for at least a thousand years. The town was first attested in writing by an Arab traveller Abu-al-Mahasini who met a Judge from Lamu visiting Mecca in 1441.

The town's history is marked by a Portuguese invasion which began in 1506, and the Omani domination around 1813 (the year of the Battle of Shela). The Portuguese invasion was prompted by the nation's successful mission to control trade along the coast of the Indian Ocean. For considerable time, Portugal had a monopoly in shipping along the East African coast and imposed export taxes on the pre-existing local channels of commerce. In the 1580s, Lamu led a rebellion against the Portuguese, prompted by Turkish raids. In 1652, Lamu was assisted by Oman in lifting Portuguese control. Lamu's years as an Omani protectorate mark the town's golden age. During this period, Lamu became a center of poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as the trade.

Lamu is a popular destination for backpackers in search of an authentic experience. As the majority of Lamu's population is Muslim, for many Lamu is there first experience of Ramadan. Hungry backpackers arriving on overnight bus trips unaware that food is not available until sunset need look no further than boys selling somosas and other homemade treats on the local beach.


Lamu's economy was based on slave trade until abolition in the year 1907. Other traditional exports included ivory, mangrove, turtle shells and rhinoceros horn, which were shipped via the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and India. In addition to the abolition of slavery, construction of the Uganda Railroad in 1901 (which started from the competing port of Mombassa) significantly hampered Lamu's economy. Tourism has gradually refuelled the local economy in recent times.

China has begun feasibility studies to transform Lamu into the largest port in East Africa, as part of their String of Pearls strategy.[4]


The town was founded in the 14th century and it contains many fine examples of Swahili architecture. The old city is inscribed on the World Heritage List as "the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa".

Once a center for the slave trade, the population of Lamu is ethnically diverse. Lamu was on the main Arabian trading routes, and as a result, the population is largely Muslim. Due to the narrowness of the streets, automobiles are not allowed - the city is easily explored by foot, bicycle, or, as many locals favour, donkey.

There are several museums, including the Lamu Museum, home to the island's ceremonial horn (called siwa); other museums are dedicated to Swahili culture and to the local postal service. Notable buildings in Lamu town include:

  • Lamu Fort: Fumo Madi ibn Abi Bakr, the Sultan of Pate, started to build the fort on the seafront, to protect members of his unpopular government. He died in 1809, before the first storey of the fort was completed. The fort was completed by the early 1820s.
  • Mnarani Mosque
  • Riyadha Mosque: Habib Salih, a Sharif with family connections to the Hadramaut, Yemen, settled on Lamu in the 1880s, and became a highly respected religious teacher. Habib Salih had great success gathering students around him and in 1900 the Riyadha Mosque was built. He introduced Habshi Maulidi, where his students sang verse passages accompanied by tambourines. After his death in 1935 his sons continued the Madrassa, which became one of the most prestigious centers for Islamic Studies in East Africa. The Mosque is the centre for the Maulidi Festival, which are held every year during the last week of the month of the Prophet´s birth. During this festival pilgrims from Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Zanzibar and Tanzania join the locals to sing the praise of Mohammad.
  • Donkey Sanctuary: Since the island has no motorised vehicles, transportation and other heavy work is done with the help of donkeys. There are some 2000-3000 working donkeys on the island. Dr. Elisabeth Svendsen of the The Donkey Sanctuary in England first visited Lamu in 1985. Worried by the conditions for the donkeys, the Sanctuary was opened in 1987.[5] The Sanctuary provides treatment to all donkeys free of charge.
Lamu images
Lamu Fort  
Riyadha Mosque  
Donkey Sanctuary  
Political Parade in Lamu. Held in July, 2001  
View From Stone House Hotel Restaurant in Lamu  
Lamu Town square, in front of the fort. (1996)  
Seafront of Lamu town  

See also


  1. ^ Eliot, Charles (1966). The East African Protectorate. Routledge. pp. 11. ISBN 0-7146-1661-3. 
  2. ^ "Kenyan girl with Chinese blood steals limelight". Chinese Embassy in Kenya. Retrieved 2009-04-03. 
  3. ^ "1492: The Prequel". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-03. 
  4. ^ Future Kenya Port Could Mar Pristine Land
  5. ^ The Donkey Sanctuary
  • Allen, James de Vere: Lamu, with an appendix on Archaeological finds from the region of Lamu by H. Neville Chittick. Nairobi: Kenya National Museums.
  • Ghaidan, Usam: Lamu: A study of the Swahili town. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1975.
  • Romero, Patricia W.: Lamu: history, society, and family in an East African port city. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, c1997. ISBN 1-55876-106-3, ISBN 1-55876-107-1
  • Beckwith, Carol and Fisher, Angela, Text: Hancock, Graham: "African Ark, People and Ancient Cultures of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa," New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1990. ISBN 0-8109-1902-8
  • Couffer, Jack: "The Cats of Lamu." New York: The Lyons Press, c1998. ISBN 1-85410-568-X
  • Prins, A.H.J.: Sailing from Lamu: A Study of Maritime Culture in Islamic East Africa. Assen: van Gorcum & Comp., 1965.

External links

Coordinates: 02°16′S 40°55′E / 2.267°S 40.917°E / -2.267; 40.917


Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

The Lamu district is in Kenya. It encompasses the Lamu archipelago and vast ranges of pretty inaccessible bushland on the mainland.

Lamu is a place to chill out and relax. Leave the mobile and laptop behind and immerse yourself in a medieval peace only punctuated by the braying of donkeys and the call to prayer from the many mosques on the island.


The Lamu archipelago is the jewel of the Kenya coast.

Lamu Island is a step back into a medieval past where the air smells of spice (and donkey dung!), dhows are the main form of transport (no cars bar one belonging to the District Commissioner) and the ancient Muslim culture, customs and traditions of a bygone age sit together with internet cafes and satellite phones.

There are many other islands of the Lamu archipelago to explore through local dhow operators or on more formal organised visits and Lamu district also incorporates vast ranges of bushland on the mainland inhabited by fascinating ethnic groups such as the hunter-gatherer Boni people and the pastoralist Orma. It is though pretty inaccessible for the casual visitor or tourist.

  • Lamu (town)
  • Shela


Most of the locals speak English however you will gain more respect and be able to assimilate into the culture more readily if you learn at least some rudimentary Swahili.

(Hujambo = Hello, used only by tourists ) (Habari gani? = whats up? ) (Asante = Thank you ) (Pole = sorry ) (Tafadali = please) (Karibu = welcome ) (Hakuna Matata = no worries ) (vitu vya ngano = little doughnut [literally "small sugary thing"] ) (ndizi = banana ) (mzee = term of respect for an older person ) (mzungu = light skinned person ) (Choo iko wapi? = where is the bathroom?)

Get in

Lamu town on Lamu island is best reached by air either directly from Nairobi (Air Kenya and a small regional airline fly from Wilson Airport, Nairobi) or from Mombasa or Malindi to the south (operators include Mombasa Safari Air and other small local airlines). The airport is on an island opposite the main village necessitating a short boat/ferry ride. Tourists are generally charged a premium price for the short trip.

For those on a tighter budget a daily bus service does run from Mombasa Via Malindi . This route was notorious for attacks by Somali bandits and buses have in the past been stopped and robbed. As of Oct 2005 the security situation was deemed to be OK. Armed guards are taken on board the buses for the most dangerous part of the journey close to Lamu.

Get around

There's no need for transport (other than boats), as everything is a stone's throw away, and the windy pathways are only just wide enough to walk down. However, there are things that must be noted. Donkeys are the primary form of heavy transport on the island, and they are allowed to go to the bathroom wherever they want. Unfortunately, this also tends to be where you want to walk. As such, think twice about bringing expensive shoes, as it is very likely that at some point you will accidentally step in something you wish you hadn't.

It should also be noted that lighting at night of the narrow streets is very minimal. A flashlight is a recommended accessory for walking around at night. If you don't bring one with you, many of the tiny shops sell cheap lighters that come with small, but effective, built in LED flashlights.


a) Visit Shela beach on the North end of the Lamu island is a beautiful stretch of white sand and tiny broken sea shells. The walk from main Lamu town is only about a mile and a half and well worth it due to the locals you meet on the way. Watch for the young boys selling homemade samosas on the beach. They are delicious!

b) Lamu Museum:

Built in 1891, the Lamu Museum was the former residence of the British Governors during the colonial era. Here, you will experience and learn about the rich Swahili culture that is ever so evident in Lamu Town.


You can explore the Lamu archipelago by dhow. A dhow is a traditional Arab sailing vessel with one or more lateen sails. It is primarily used along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, India, and East Africa. Dhow trips are the ultimate experience on a trip to Lamu. They are relatively inexpensive and you can go as far as Manda Island, Takwa Ruins or Matondoni. Kiwayu is the most pristine of the islands and it is in a biosphere reserve. Several companies specialize in trips to Kiwayu but it's nice to patronize the local captains, who know the islands and the villages best (not to mention the sea!) One small company called Nature+Culture makes Kiwayu and ecotourism its specialty and works closely with the villages and they also do smaller trips: (Tour guides are licensed on Lamu and they will show you their license on request and they have a well-organized association and work together cooperatively.) Another company, [1] Sailkenya, runs three day trips. The dhow captains of Lamu, however, recently organized themselves into a professional organization, called Promise/Ahadi. They offer excellent services and their knowledge of the ocean and the island is impressive. These young men really made an effort to improve the tourist experience in Lamu, while also trying to empower themselves. You can find more information on their website (, visit their booking office (close to the German Post Office Museums) or look for them along the Lamu Seafront wearing bright blue T-Shirts and badges of their organization.


The seafront restaurants in Lamu Town offer excellent seafood at reasonable prices. Delve further back from the dock for more traditional Swahili fare. The Seafront Cafe is an excellent value and the locals eat there. Try the garlic crab or crab soup.

Also, if you are there more than a couple days and you look like a tourist, you will likely be approached by a short, stout, elderly man who will introduce himself as "Ali Hippy," who will offer you the opportunity to eat in his house for a fee. Don't be afraid to take him up on his offer. The food is good, and his family will perform musical numbers for you afterwards. An interesting experience that is worth having under your belt. However, think about bringing your own utensils, otherwise you will find yourself trying to eat oil-soaked rice with your fingers - not the easiest task.


Meet up and drink beer with fellow travellers,at 'Petleys' one of the few bars in the town.

You can also enjoy a Tusker at the Lamu Palace hotel, but this is more expensive than Petley's, and very quiet, but OK if you want to hear the waves crash against the sea wall and read a book.

However, the cheapest beer on the island is at the Social Club, hidden away in the bush, down the coast after the power station.

This is where all the locals go, and thus has the best music and cheapest beer and pool table.

DEFINITELY go to the social club on a Saturday night for boogie boogie disco! - A mixture of traditional african and reggae. Everyone screams and goes crazy when Bob Marley is played!!

When you find the music too hot and loud, go round the side and enjoy a game of 8 ball pool. The locals willingly play winner stays on, but you might have to pay for their game too, but at 50c a game who cares! There will be a pool attendant to keep you cue well chalked and to set up the table for you (buy him a couple of tusker for his trouble!).

The walk to the social club can seem a bit daunting especially as the sea wall isn't lit too well, but basically just walk away from the town centre towards shela keeping the sea on your left, go past the hospital, past the power station, and keep going until you see a sand path through the mangroves into the bush on your right, and a few dim lights at the end of it. On a Sat night you will definitely hear the music before you arrive!!

If you are still concerned about taking the walk, ask one of the local beach boys (Staboy, Mburu or Issac) to show you the way just buy them a beer for their trouble. Make sure that they realise that you are only buying them 1 beer otherwise they will keep asking for more!


Accommodation in Lamu ranges from a wide range of budget hotels and guesthouses to the luxury of Peponi Hotel in the village of Shela on the north-east tip of the island.

Lamu House Rental, Selection of luxury private house, beach villas and traditional Swahili properties for best rate in and arround Lamu. All homes are restored, decorated and furnished with style and respect a long welcoming history.

Dhow sailing

Dhow sailing in Lamu Island will give you the wonderful experience. A romantic sunset cruise or a day excursion combining historical ruins and snorkelling, a unique experience of sleeping on a luxurious dhow, savouring a fresh caught fish on the beach, Lamu has a long history related to dhow sailing and lots of stories. Get your best experience on Lamu House Rental

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