Culture & Traditions
The people of Lamu are known as the Swahili. They are merchants, fishers, boat builders and sailors, farmers and craftspeople whose lives are interwoven with the religion of Islam. They are a modest community and in public women wear what is called a shuka or bui bui, known in the West as a veil. Men wear a sarong or a kanzu, a white gown that reaches the feet. On their head the men wear a kofia, a delicately embroidered hat, to show their devotion to Islam. In Lamu Town alone, there are over 40 mosques. Islam is the warp and weft of life here and it provides the community with rich values of equality and respect and welcoming visitors to their islands.
Lamu was a rich and cosmopolitan port in the 17th to the early 19th centuries. The monsoon winds brought sailing vessels laden with trading goods to the Swahili coast and, later, when the winds shifted around, sent them back again with local products in exchange. Merchant city states grew in the region, enabled by the wealth accrued from successful trading links and Lamu’s position of power and wealth grew as well. Artisans flourished in this environment including boat builders, masons and wood carvers who built large dhows, created exquisite interior spaces of homes and mosques, as well as magnificent entryways through which the entitled passed. Stately houses of the wealthy merchant families graced the town and today many of these houses have been renovated keeping traditional Swahili architectural forms alive while adding modern conveniences.
Weddings are extremely important affairs in Lamu. They connect families in the area and create a joyous mood in the whole community. There are stick dances, known as kirumbizi, on the seafront for men and the public to watch and there are parties and dances for the women. Often the festivities go on for three days and the night is filled with music.
Swahili music and poetry are valued art forms in the community, and like with most music, there is the mix of traditional and contemporary. To the uninitiated, the contemporary music sounds like a mixture of Indian and Arabic with tabla drum beats. The traditional is heavy with percussion instruments and horns. Each type of music has its place in this vibrant society. Festivals often bring the best of Swahili music to Lamu to play to packed audiences in the town square.
Language; The Lamu community is part of the larger Swahili world along the East African coast that once spread from Mogadishu to Mozambique. The commonality among this diverse group of people is language, religion and a coastal mercantile history. The language of the Swahili people is Kiswahili, one of the national languages of Kenya, and Lamu is the birth place of the language. Linguistic scholars recognise Kiswahili as a Bantu language, yet it shares many Arabic words. Kiswahili is a written language, originally using Arabic script from as long ago as the 14th century.
Most people on the island can speak rudimentary English. Lamu Tour Guides can speak English well and many know other European languages as well. Children like to practice their English with visitors so you will often get “howayou����� and they will be very pleased to receive an English answer.
Hujambo a greeting, any time of day (singular)
Sijambo �� the answer (singular)
Hamjambo������ a greeting, any time of day (plural)
Hatujambo�� �� the answer (plural)
Tafadhali �� ‘Please’
Asante ‘Thank you’
Religion is an integral part of Lamu life and the traditions that have developed over time. Children attend madrassa or Islamic schools to learn Arabic and the Koran. They begin as young as 4 years old and continue through puberty. Here they learn important family values and respect for elders, which is intrinsic to Swahili traditions.
Lamu is a predominantly Moslem community. Islam came to the coast of East Africa as early as the 9th century, brought by trading partners from the Arabian Peninsula. From the 18th century, Lamu has been recognised as a centre of Islamic scholarship throughout the region and even today students travel far to its institutions of learning. There are many important mosques on the island. Two of them are Riyadha and Swafaa. Riyadha is the centre of Sunni Scholarship and Swafaa of Shia education. Religious festivals on the island include Maulidi and Idd ul fitr. These celebrations take place in public and visitors are welcome to watch. Modest dress is appropriate in public and should be respected at all times.
Way of Life. With its history as a trading centre and port city, Lamu has always welcomed people of different persuasions and respected difference; in fact, these differences have added to the cultural richness of Lamu and created a pragmatic and cosmopolitan outlook on life.
Time in Lamu is set by the tides, calls to prayer and phases of the moon. Here nature takes over and the rest of the world seems out of synch, out of touch and out of mind. The Swahili lifestyle reflects these markers and life begins at dawn with the first call to prayer – the Al Fajiri. Later, groups of men sit drinking coffee along the seafront or in their neighbourhoods discussing local news or world events. Fishermen come in with their catches and the cats begin to congregate waiting patiently for their portion. Shops unlock their massive doors and the day begins. The fresh fruit and vegetable market in Lamu is teeming with shoppers purchasing mangoes, papaya, passion fruit, bananas, pineapples, limes, coconuts, tamarind and a host of other tropical delights in season. In the fish market, the fresh catch of the day is laid out. Food shopping is a daily ritual and greetings to friends and neighbors an important part of the activity.
The call to prayer at midday – the Adhuhuri (Dhur) prayer closes shops and other work. Soon the midday meal will be served and afterwards a siesta is welcomed. Shops reopen at 4 pm and stay open into the night. The seafront becomes a promenade in the early evening, reclaimed from a working waterfront to a leisure spot where groups of people sit chatting and drinking Arabic coffee in small cups and eating traditional sweets. At dusk, the evening call to prayer – the Magharibi (Maghrib), empties the seafront as people go home to families via the mosque. This is the cadence to a day in Lamu.