The population of the islands and the mainland strip opposite is a mixture of many groups: Bajunis, Arabs, Somalis and Indians. Since the 20th century these groups have been joined by migrant populations of Somali, Indians, Kikuyus and expatriates from around the world. Today, some of the original inhabitants still live in the Islands of Faza and Kiwayu where there is little basic infrastructure but most of the population lives in Lamu Town and the Village of Shela.
Photos Courtesy of Roland Klemp
Traditional swahili dhows have sailed the waters of the Indian Ocean for centuries; although still popular after WWI, the dhow-making culture faded into obscurity in the late 1920s. Tourism and cultural heritage projects are bringing the culture of Dhow-making to the Swahili coast.
The economy of the Lamu archipelago depended historically on the dhow trade, the sale of mangrove poles, fishing and cattle. Thousands of boats and ships visit Lamu's harbours annually and it has now become an important tourist destination, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The famous Dau La Mtepe was a large craft, often measuring at least 50 ft. long. The most interesting feature of the boat was the fact that it was built entirely without nails; the wood was instead pegged with wooden dowels and sewn together with a type of coir rope, and the deck was made of thatched palm fronds. This type of sewn craft is also common throughout the Arabian peninsula.
The most important building material on the East African coast is coral of which two varieties were used: soft coral which was used for jambs, lintels, mihrabs and similar carved elements and hard terrestrial coral for foundations, walls and other parts of the structure. Coral was also burnt to provide lime for mortar and plaster. Mangrove poles were used as structural timber either in round sections (boriti) or in square dressed sections (banaa), for floor joists and roof rafters.
Roofs were covered with layers of coral and lime plaster to thicknesses of 30 cm to 50 cm. Few of the existing roofs so constructed are older than one hundred and fifty years. Roofs constructed in this manner did not last very long because of wet rot in the supporting wood. Water leaking through roofs accumulates and penetrates by capillary action into the end grain; excessive checking occurs when the swollen wood dries, thus facilitating further wetting. Nevertheless, this form of roofing is widely used on the coast and almost universally in domestic architecture.
Some mosques depart from this mode of construction, and are roofed with stone vaults. In the 9th century site on Manda Island there is evidence of mangrove poles used as horizontal wall reinforcement. Frames to doors and windows are commonly made of dressed mangroves; but two local varieties of hardwood are also used for carved frames, center posts and lintels.
Photos Courtesy of Roland Klemp
The stone-built houses of Lamu, Shela and the rest of the Lamu archipelago are historically self-contained buildings housing all living, sleeping and service accommodation that a large family and its domestic staff would have required. The houses stand on a small plot averaging less than 250 square meters in area, and except for the internal courtyard, they cover the plot entirely. Most existing houses in Lamu were double-storeyed, often with an additional penthouse. The ground floor is, according to tradition, the slaves' quarters; the first floor contains the rooms of the free owners.
Cultural & Tourist Activities
- Maulid Celebration
- Lamu Museum, exhibiting Swahili culture and the mainland’s non-Swahili groups
- Lamu Fort, dating back to 1821, built by the Sultan of Oman shortly after Lamu’s victory over Pate and Mombasa in the battle of Shela
- German Post Office Museum
- Swahili House Museum
- Takwa National Monument on Manda Island (a settlement dating back to AD 1500, with ruins of a Great Mosque and a pillar tomb)
- Ruins of Shanga, an 8th century Swahili settlement, on Pate Island, containing remains of the coral walls of 160 houses, two palaces, three mosques and hundreds of tombs
- The early Swahili settlement of Pate
- Numerous sites and monuments that showcase Swahili civilization at its height in the 15th century
- Donkey sanctuary
- The dhow-making village of Matondoni
- For all Lamu events, activities and destinations visit the What To Do page