The people of the sea will connect you to the world more than the Island internet!
Monicah Sairo (University of Roehampton PhD Student)
Karibu Lamu Tamu’ (welcome to sweet Lamu) was the first phrase that attracted my attention as a researcher when I first landed on the historic Island. Captain Bakari had said this to me while inviting me onboard his small beautiful dhow. ‘The sweetness of the Island is in the ocean’, said Bakari. After a lengthy chat Bakari concluded by reiterating that he and his family have depended on the sea for years. Unfortunately, my journey was only half an hour and hence, I did not get to delve further into the exciting conversation. However, the encounter with Bakari, and the chit-chat on my way to my hotel, prepared me to confront such ‘pregnant’ statements. As I began to understand the uses of sayings and symbols seems to be part of the everyday conversation among the Lamu people.
At one point, on my way to the hotel, Captain Bakari, suggested a few things to do in the Island as a tourist but explaining to him who I was he was quick to recommend things I should do as a student and or a Nairobian who studies in London. My position and different personas were the second things that I had to grapple with, being a young woman, an outsider, a student from the UK, a Kenyan, a Maasai all these personas in one way or the other have on many occasions influenced the varied relationships. I have begun to develop. My identity as Maasai woman on the Island in most instances becomes the entry point of long candid conversations. However, most reactions mostly depended on my response to questions such as, “Which part of Kenya are you from?”, “Is this your first time in Lamu?” or “How long will you be here for?” Although these were very common questions in my first week in the Island, I must admit that I now begin to feel part of the society. I have been invited to attend youth activities such as the Youth Dialogue Forum and the Art of Breathing Talk, among others. Through this conversations, I, have been able to develop contacts with different artists/artisan and craftspeople on the Island. Furthermore, I have been able to expand my research contacts mainly through recommendations from the different people that I meet, in different social spaces, such as eateries, museum, art and crafts studios and youth creative spaces among others.
Having been on the Island 7 years ago, I couldn’t help noting the obvious changes around the ocean. The ocean is a constant point around which my activities circulate but also there were changes such as the use of new fiberglass boats, motorcycles, and the unavoidable sight of pollution along the beaches. The new boats and motorcycles seem to be part of the main transport around and within the Lamu Archipelago which complement, and in some areas, have replaced the traditional dhows and donkeys. Walking between some Islands such as Lamu and Shela, one is constantly forced to give way to the motorbikes, and this seems to be the trigger to chit-chats between the pedestrians. One man, riding a donkey, said to me, ‘I hate to admit that these bikes are a nuisance but a blessing to the youth, it is a source of employment’. Another pedestrian joined in the conversation and was quick to give his opinion, ‘I think they are dangerous, not many of the riders are professionally trained, and they have caused a lot of unrecorded accidents’.
One captain of a traditional dhow said to me, ‘New boats are saviours to many but sadly come with a cost…..many people have opted for these boats because of cost of making and maintaining them. However, they are not as comfortable as the traditional dhows and in addition they have contributed to pollution of the sea.’
This is just an excerpt of how my everyday life in Lamu is developing. The Lamunian are very friendly, engaging and curious people, this has made it easy for me as a researcher to search for information. However, the amount of information from everyday engagements has been overwhelming.
Needless to say, the Island’s enthralling history, intimate alleyways, deserted beaches and slow pace of life captivates travellers and this will often stir up exciting conversations. ‘This is an insanely happy place’, said a female tourist who was ending her visit. She smiled ruefully as the boat man replied to her, “Leaving the Island is a disease, to come back is the cure’.