Lamu, Al-Shabab? Hakuna Matata.

19 Apr

Happy Easter, all!

After my month of  vacation, it has felt good to get back to work. On Thursday afternoon though, only one other co-worker remained and I soon found out that not only is Good Friday a public holiday in Kenya, so is the following Monday. Have I mentioned that I love this country? So I made quick plans for a weekend getaway.

I’ve wanted to visit Lamu for awhile. If you recall, this is where in September a British couple were kidnapped (one killed) as well as a French national a month later. While the Islamic insurgent group Al-Shabab is still alive and well, there hadn’t been much news from Lamu lately. After seeing that the overly-cautious and usually out-of-date US Dept of State’s travel restriction on Lamu had been lifted on April 4th, I decided to make it my Easter destination! For the record, the travel restriction is still in effect for the border areas with Somalia.

First, I took a bus from Nairobi to Mombasa, spent the night, and then boarded a matatu to Lamu. After passing through Malindi, the road turned off and became a dirt road for the last 3 hours of the journey.

The road was very bumpy, making the matatu shake so violently and loudly that I couldn’t decide which would happen first – the matatu falling apart or my ears starting to bleed. Neither happened 🙂

I uploaded a video of the bus ride on the way back. Equally bumpy!

We passed this village on the way to Lamu. The tops of these bomas are not made of corrugated steel because it’s too hot – better to thatch it with palm fronds or other materials.

I buy street food and support hawkers like it’s my job. Case in point – here’s a snack I encountered for the first time – a candy made with coconut milk and sugar. Imagine maple candy, but creamier and tastier.

It’s common for herds of animals to block roads. There were so many cows (with humps!) here, I had to take a pic.

After reaching the Indian Ocean,  a 30-minute, $1 speedboat ride connects the Kenyan mainland to Lamu Island. Here is what you’re greeted with.

Donkeys? Yes, donkeys. There are no motor vehicles on the island, save for one ambulance and one police car. So, people get around on donkeys as well as utilizing them for all that…well….donkey work! 2,400 of these bad boys do all the hard work for Lamu’s residents.

Here is a picture of Lamu’s Stone Town. Similar to Zanzibar’s, it’s literally a blast from the past. A UNESCO site, the entire island has been protected from development (although there is a port being built now near the island, strongly opposed by locals).

The island is soaking in traditional Swahili culture. The town is nearly 100% Muslim.

I talked with many residents about the impact of Al-Shabab’s attacks on tourism. It has really hurt the livelihood of the island, although most remarked that foreigners are starting to trickle back. I think the Dept of State needs to rethink its overprotective-parent-esque travel restrictions, especially when you remember that a warning can mean increased poverty levels.

There were so few tourists on the island that a former Director of Lamu’s tourism office (for 30 years) gave me a personal tour and helped to book my bus ticket back to Nairobi. These stone pathways were everywhere….not wide enough for a car but certainly wide enough for a donkey!

Time to take a nap – this is the ‘front porch’ of an old Portuguese-built house.

The next day, I took a sail boat to Manda Island and Shella Beach.

I’m fond of sailing because there is no fossil fuel involved. Listening to the quiet flow of the water is therapeutic.

Time to fish! The old-fashioned way…too bad they weren’t biting.

Here’s me on Manda Island, looking out on Lamu Island. Complete with a starch and sugar induced Kenyan belly!

I recommend anyone to travel to Lamu. It’s a memorable experience, and best of all, it is 100% safe. So safe that I even edited the ‘Lamu’ Wikipedia article to stop scaring away tourists. Come one, come all!

I will say it’s a good thing I left the Coast when I did, though.

OK, now for some (random) thoughts I’ve had running through my head recently.

There is a culture in Kenya that those with money should spend that money. There is not a strong desire to save. In fact, I’m frequently hassled for refusing to spend money on, for example, a taxi ride. I’ll opt to walk 20 minutes instead of spend $5, and a driver may shout at me, ‘But you have money!’ The idea that someone only wants to spend money on things that they want to spend money on is a bit foreign here. Incidentally, I think this is a change of mindset that is necessary for a Maono member to be successful. A desire to save and plan financially is imperative.

A friend told me the other day that I probably forget the adventure I’m having because it starts to feel normal. I hadn’t thought about this and couldn’t agree more. Let me give you a quick example as to what is normal for me now – the other day, I was crammed in the backseat (3 seats) of a matatu with four other people heading to the Kenya-Uganda border. Now, look at your right hand and spread your pinky as far away from your thumb as possible. From one tip to the other, that’s less than the space I had from my head to the ceiling. One-and-a-half of that ‘finger-span’ is the space I was sitting on. All the while, a few live chickens stowed underneath my seat were intermittently pecking at my ankles. I could not move, as I had my backpack at my feet and my luggage sitting on my lap since there was no trunk space. It’s times like those that I thank our Creator for a thing called ‘window seats.’

I often alternate in my judgement of Kenya, East Africa, and beyond. Sometimes, I complain that the infrastructure is not up to par or that institutions are not effective. But usually, I try to judge Africa on its own terms. After all, as long as we view Africa through a pair of Western glasses, it will seem like a wallowing mass of stupidity and inefficiency. It, in fact, is nothing like that. It’s a land that teaches patience to a generation of instant gratification. It’s a land where people interact, laugh, and cry, instead of living a life of isolation. It’s a land that follows the sun and the moon instead of the watch. It’s a land that makes socio-economic privilege impossible to ignore. It’s a land that is beautiful in its simplicity. And it’s a land that I don’t want to leave.

OK, that’s enough for now. Thanks for following along. Right now, I’m in Fort Portal, Uganda. I’ve returned to Uganda to carry out more Durham University microfinance research. This time, I’m traveling all over the countryside. Wish me luck and I’ll update you soon!


6 Responses to “Lamu, Al-Shabab? Hakuna Matata.”

  1. Claire April 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Agh gosh Ben your posts are so good! I love reading them! I especially like your insight into not judging through a Western lens. It’s hard not to do that but so imperative.

    • Ben April 20, 2012 at 10:58 am #

      Thanks, Claire…what a coincidence because I love reading YOUR blog! And yes, we all need to change our prescription and view the world through a more holistic lens 🙂

  2. Greercita April 20, 2012 at 5:51 am #

    wise friend you got there.

    • Ben April 20, 2012 at 11:01 am #

      Tell me about it. She’s a wise sage and is working in the Border Patrol right now I do believe.

  3. Michael May 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    You certainly enjoy your work and the travel around Kenya. keep enjoying. Your a great source of information to the outside world on the threat of terrorism in Lamu and Kenya in general. am happy that you actually use public transport and well you also buy fro the locals thus improving the livelihood of the locals.

    • Ben May 2, 2012 at 5:15 pm #


      Thank you for your comment as I wrote this post in part to get the word out there that Lamu, and nearly all of Kenya, are 100% safe.

      I love public transport, eating local food, etc. for three big reasons – cost, it makes it easier to interact with locals, and I’d much rather support the local economy instead of foreign-run enterprises.


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