The road from Garsen to Witu is tarmacked, unlike 1998 when we spent a whole day stuck in the mud after the El-Nino rains rendered it impassable.
Witu’s heyday were in the 1880s. The sultan of Pate Island settled in Witu, which was a haven for escaped slaves enroute to Zanzibar, in 1858. Not pleased with the state of affairs, the sultan of Zanzibar attacked the town.
The Witu sultan asked the Germans for protection and in 1885, the German brothers Clemens and Gustav Denhardt (who also started the first post office in East Africa on Lamu Island, now a museum) signed a treaty with him.
Wituland, a territory of 3,000 square kilometers, became a German Protectorate with 25 square kilometers under Tana Company belonging to the brothers. Wituland was on the international map, with postage stamps issued in 1889.
In 1890, Wituland became part of British East Africa in accord with the 1890 Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty, but there was never a dull moment around here. In 1891, slavery was abolished in Witu and Indian soldiers were brought in to enforce the law.
A group of German merchants was murdered and the sultan fled, but his successor led a series of attacks against the British who overcame them. English eccentrics like Percy Petley, of the famous Petley’s Inn on Lamu’s seafront, tried to establish a plantation but failed. Then he set up the establishment that still stands in Lamu. With time, Witu fizzled away.
Today, we stop for a quick lunch in the ramshackle one-street town at the local kiosk. The old mosque is in place by the village courtyard and men in white kanzus prepare for prayers in the month of Ramadhan.
Chatting with the locals, I’m curious about the thick ‘mwambakofi’ forest that was famous for its hardwood. “That road leads to Boni forest,” replies the villager.
My ears pick up. For years I’ve been trying to meet the Aweere, an almost-forgotten people living on the edge of the Boni-Dodori forest.
“It’s 30 kilometers away,” reveals our source. We change plans immediately and drive the rough road through a forest that was once thick, followed by an open plain where we spot a huge herd of topi antelope. Finally, we arrive at a village where a mosque and a school are the only two brick buildings.
Men sit in a baraza under a big village tree. A few feet away, women weave their mats and children play where the thatched huts are clustered closely together.
A round of introductions, then we chat around the enormous Tamarindus indica tree. “This is the Aweere village of Pandanguo,” begins Hamisi Tanne. They trace their history to Shingwaya in Somalia many centuries ago.
“We gather honey and wild fruits from the forest and also farm. We used to be nomadic people,” says Abubakr Shafi, chairperson of the youth project, keen to start an eco-tourism venture.
“The village is called Pandanguo because many years ago, there was an old man who used to plough his farm and put clothes in it because he believed more clothes would grow,” he laughs.
“We have many animals in our forest like giraffe, leopards, lions, buffaloes and elephants.”
We stroll to the next village two kilometers away. It is a handful of homesteads. Few children make it past the primary school and none have made it to university. For the Aweere, their forest is a sacred realm.