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Experience Swahili Culture on Lamu Island

Kenya's secret archipelago is the perfect conclusion for an East Africa itinerary.

June 14, 2024

Lamu is a small archipelago off the Kenyan coast comprising the four islands of Kiwayu, Manda, Pate, and Lamu. These islands once played an important role as a trading post connecting East Africa with South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. 

Nowadays, the islands enjoy a delightfully calm pace of life virtually free from motor vehicles and offer travelers the opportunity to learn about one of the oldest Swahili settlements on the East African coast. 

Why Lamu Island should be on your radar

Lamu is a charming island where tourism is gentle and unhurried; it’s quite the antidote after spending time in Nairobi and on safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Activity revolves around exploring the Old Town, relaxing at Shela Beach, and cruising the coastline by dhow boat. 

The labyrinthine Lamu Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Residences are crafted from mangrove timber and coral stone and showcase such traditional architectural features as inner courtyards and carved wooden doors. 

Photo by Photos By Beks on Unsplash

Lamu Museum explains the archipelago’s history as a trading post. The exhibition dips into marine history and Swahili culture. Lamu Fort is another wonderful site for deepening your understanding of the island’s heritage. This may be followed up with a tour of the hastily abandoned Takwa Ruins on Manda Island. 

The village of Shela is home to beautiful 19th-century mosques, art studios, and wellness retreats. One of the best beaches in East Africa stretches west from the town center with pristine white dunes and watersports activities.

Dhow cruising around Lamu

Dhows are traditional wooden sailing boats found in Indian Ocean countries and around the Red Sea. They’re synonymous with Lamu and taking a scenic cruise is a must. Shared tours and private charters operate at sunset and it’s also possible to use dhow boats as a means of accessing the other islands in the archipelago.

Lamu events and festivals 

Lamu Cultural Festival is held in late November/early December. It’s an occasion to celebrate and learn about traditional Swahili music and dance, island cuisine, dhow races, spoken poetry, and henna rituals. 

Swahili dishes to try on Lamu Island 

Lamu’s cuisine relies on fish curries prepared with coconut milk, island turmeric and cumin, tangy tamarind paste, and a squeeze of lime. These are best enjoyed with a side order of chapati bread and a masala tea brewed with cinnamon and cardamom. 

Where to stay on Lamu Island 

The Korschen family have owned and managed the Peponi Hotel in Shela since the 1960s. Rooms at this boutique hotel have sea or pool views and private verandahs. The restaurant prepares spicy soup, bao buns, and sushi  The management team can assist with local sightseeing activities.  

When to visit Lamu 

Africa’s eastern coast has two seasonal winds. Kusi, the southeast trade wind, brings strong gusts and rains from May to October. Kas Kazi, the northeast trade wind, blows from November to April and brings calm, clear water perfect for snorkeling and fishing. Not forgetting, the arrival of the dry season coincides with the Lamu Cultural Festival.

Contact Darby at Darby’s Destinations when you are ready to book your trip to Kenya. Continue your East African travels with a trip to Zanzibar in Tanzania.

Ready to embark on your own journey to the extraordinary?