It’s raining in Lamu Stone Town, the oldest urban town in East Africa – it’s been inhabited for seven centuries. The rain has made it impossible to go island hopping and so, stuck in town, it’s the perfect time to stroll through the main shopping street down the alley where we’re staying.
We have to stop to let a donkey laden with sand in its panniers walk past us. And then we’re in town, on the street that’s the shopping paradise of Lamu – Harambee Street.
Our first stop is at Isaiah Chepyator’s Old Town Art and Recycled Art Gallery housed in a centuries-old building. We first met in 2013 in Koroto in the Tugen Hills near Lake Baringo and have since become good friends.
The watchman-turned-artist sponsored the inaugural Koroto Cultural Festival in 2014. His speciality is carving from recycled wooden dhows, driftwood and broken boats.
My eye catches something else on the wall that looks insignificant but turns out to be the rostrum of a sawfish once so common in the Lamu waters. “An old Bajuni man came to the gallery and I just had to buy it,” says Chepyator.
We take the morning to wander down-town. Opposite his studio is another generations-old woodcarvers’ factory, Amani Handicraft, specialising in hand-carved Lamu wooden doors and furniture. Ahmed Queresh shows his tools while carving a door frame with Ingia kwa salama na amani (enter in peace) chiselled in Arabic among the intricate patterns.
Chepyator then leads me to the recently renovated 700-year old Rawdha Mosque where the huge wooden carved door was carefully cleaned by Queresh and to protect it from direct sunlight, has a canapé fitted above it.
Next stop is at one of Lamu’s famed silversmith – Slim – after the owner Mbarak O. Slim. He brings out a collection of silver rings set with shards of porcelain from old broken plates when traders from the east sailed in with the monsoon winds trading porcelain and silks for slaves, spices, mangrove poles, ivory and rhino horn. He shows off his visitor’s book with Hollywood actors dropping in.
Past the 19th century Lamu Fort we are at Abubaker Mamen’s shop (near the German post office) for the ubiquitous kanga. The tall man regally dressed in a spotless white kanzu has just come from the mosque. Originally from Pate Island, his father settled in Lamu in search of better prospects.
Mamen trades in pure cotton kangas collected from the island women. “When the cotton mills were working we made our own kangas – and they were pure cotton like these. Now all we get is imported stuff mixed with polyester and they just do not have the same feel or texture.”
It’s turning late afternoon and we drop in at Whispers the coffee shop and adjoining gallery called Gallery Baraka where the owner Kate Baraka displays her signature jewellery pieces and artefacts from around Africa.
Once a prayer hall for the Ismaili community on the island, it was deconsecrated when the Ismailis left the island some 40 years ago and sold off. Digging through the sand-filled rubble, out came the pillars and the arches. The coffee shop serves home baked cakes, ice-creams, sorbets, teas and coffees.
Chepyator points to etchings on the coral wall plastered in limestone with a sketch etched on it by some ancient mariner. It takes a local to know the little-known secrets of an ancient land.