British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Peter Lloyd
Lamu Town
Lamu Harbour
The ancient Arab town of Lamu is on an island off the north-east coast of Kenya. I first went there some fifty years ago, to serve as District Commissioner. The place was magical. Enchanted, I fell under its spell.

It was a full day's drive away from Mombasa. An exhausting drive too, more than two hundred miles of dusty road which became progressively bumpier. When it was passable at all. Floods closed it for about six months each year. To a young bachelor this proved a blessing. Visits by Higher Authority were never inconveniently frequent. Moreover elephant often knocked over the poles which carried the telephone line, cutting off communications. So there was plenty of scope for local initiative. Which of course made the job more interesting.

Nobody really wanted to interfere in any case, provided that Lamu remained a haven of peace at a time when the Mau Mau Emergency was afflicting parts of up-country Kenya. The need was to keep its population happy. That required little effort, for most of them regarded all forms of change with the gravest suspicion. The town itself reflected their attitude, being the epitome of changelessness. As just one example, my palatial residence had been completed in 1892, yet everybody still called it "the new house".

And what a house! Despite the absence of both electricity and piped water and the presence of a multitude of bats, it was a palace of delights. So vast that I occupied only a small part of the building. Much of the remainder was used by the station carpenter, or by the launch crew, or by other unidentified individuals, to store supplies. Whole families were established elsewhere in it, claiming to be descendants of slaves of its original owner, with squatters' rights. In return they performed odd jobs, like bringing up water from the cistern. I even discovered, after living there for several months, that someone had started a shop in the back premises and seemed to have a flourishing business.

Lamu Town
Lamu Girls
The district's chief delight was nevertheless the variety and charm of its inhabitants. Foremost amongst them, setting the tone, was the Liwali, who had a name straight out of the Arabian Nights - Sheikh Azan bin Rashid. He looked the part, too, with a spotless kanzu of dazzling white, a beautifully embroidered cap, a long grey beard and very impressive dignity. His was a measured pace as he walked with stately tread along the seafront promenade, pausing to greet each acquaintance. You had to do likewise, for it was the sort of society which believed that "Manners Makyth Man". Haste was deprecated as discourteous; and discourtesy could soon have bred discontent.

Besides, you could learn a lot during an evening stroll. Those whom you would be likely to meet included friendly Bajun from the north-east of the district. They might have come in coastal dhows, bringing poles they had cut in the mangrove forests there. Or perhaps they had just been lured for a few days to the big city by its reputation: the town was not really that large, but it reputedly offered pleasures to accommodate every taste.

Next might be visitors from exotic places like Muscat or Oman. Their homelands had not by then become oil-rich, and their graceful ocean-going dhows still had no engines. They therefore continued to visit East Africa annually, as their forefathers were reputed to have done from time immemorial, to trade salt and dates and carpets for the mangrove poles which they took back to the Gulf. At one time they had taken slaves too. Perhaps they still hankered to do so, for I learned that during my time at Lamu they were urging leading members of the local community to ask me on their behalf whether they could instead take some Mau Mau prisoners or detainees, of whom many hundreds were then held in various camps around the district.

Or you would recognize some Swahili labourers taking their rest after the exertions of the day. It was well deserved, for they had tough jobs. Neither cranes nor motor vehicles had reached Lamu Island, so all cargo had to be hauled ashore by hand, humped over the sea wall and then loaded onto small donkey carts, or onto the donkeys themselves, ready to be transported round the narrow streets of the town.

A group of handsome Somalis might strut past you, looking pleased with themselves. And no wonder. They had already outwitted the Italian authorities, evading the tax payable when their cattle were exported to Kenya for sale to the Arab dealers who supplied the Mombasa meat market. And they were confident that they would outwit you too, purchasing to take home with them elephant tusks poached by the Boni bushmen. It would later be returned to Kenya stamped "shot in Somaliland", for sale to the craftsmen who carved ivory.

Lamu Town
Percy Petley's Inn
After strolling you could obtain liquid refreshment (and hear more gossip) at the local hotel. It was kept by Percy Petley, who looked like a broken down pirate - with a black patch over one eye, thick spectacles on the other and a hearing aid which was switched off whenever he proposed to tick you off without permitting you any right of reply. He had opened the hotel in the late 1940s, on retiring to Lamu some forty years after he had as a young man first come to Africa from his native Suffolk. Although primitive in many ways, his hotel boasted good food and a well stocked bar from which guests were expected to help themselves.

Lamu Town
The New House
Percy once sought an interview with me to discuss what he described as a Matter of Importance. Despite being a stern critic of the government's bureaucracy, extravagance and other iniquities, he had never called at my office before. His request seemed certain to presage a formidable complaint; and I therefore racked my brain in the hope of recalling some sin of omission or commission which he might have unearthed. When the time came he solemnly explained that he wanted my opinion about a point which was troubling him: now that the hotel bar had begun to make a profit (its trade having become much brisker) ought he to obtain a liquor licence for it?

I served in Lamu for only a year. But it was a year which I have never forgotten. Nostalgic memories keep flooding back. Something I still remember with special pleasure is the gift which the Bajun people presented to me on my departure. It was a model of an mtepe, the fabled craft with planking sewn together and a mat bag sail which had long ago been used for coastal traffic by generations of their ancestors. But the model must have been six feet long. The prospect of trying to transport it with my luggage appalled me. By agreement I therefore left it behind, to be displayed in the house; and was delighted to find it still there, on display, when I revisited my old haunts more than twenty-five years later, though the house had meanwhile become the Lamu Museum.

Lamu District
The Bajun Islands and the Boni Forest on the adjacent mainland are both in Lamu District. They stretch for over fifty miles to the north-east of Lamu Island, between it and Somalia. Fifty years ago only the most determined travellers (and a handful of fortunate government officers) ever ventured beyond Lamu itself to visit either of them. Not that the area was closed like the Northern Frontier District, which you needed permission to enter. It was simply so inaccessible as to be almost Terra Incognita - and altogether fascinating.

Lamu District
Siyu Fort, Pate
Admittedly plenty of local dhows sailed from Lamu to the Bajun Islands, usually taking consumer goods there and bringing mangrove poles back. But their schedules were unpredictable. In any case they were cargo carriers without regard for passenger comfort or convenience. Few visitors therefore chose to travel aboard them even though no alternative transport was readily available unless you possessed a suitable boat of your own.

As to the Boni Forest, barely recognizable tracks through it led to Kiunga, a few miles from the border with what was then Italian Somaliland. Outside some coastal villages its only inhabitants were scattered family groups of bushmen and the game upon which they depended. With one of them to guide you it was sometimes possible to reach Kiunga in a Land Rover or a lorry. Though not often: a swamp always barred the way except during the driest part of the dry season. So I usually went most of the way there by sea - in a brand new purpose-built launch aboard which I lived for perhaps a week each month - walking the last twenty miles to visit some of the coastal villages.

Our first call was usually somewhere on Pate Island. The town of that name which had once flourished there, rivalling Lamu itself, had long since fallen into decay. Only crumbling ruins remained as evidence of former splendour, with a handful of inhabitants who had opted to stay. Then those inhabitants chanced to discover that the ruins were an ideal medium in which to grow abundant crops of chewing tobacco. They soon began to prosper as a result and, devoutly, decided to give thanks by restoring their Great Mosque. I congratulated them, offered encouragement - and was asked for a donation. Soon afterwards I did contribute three hundred shillings, a substantial sum in those days, because.. .but that is another story.

Lamu District
Domed Tomb, Pate
Some time later James Kirkman, the Government Archaeologist, visited Lamu, staying with me. His post was a recent creation, but I had already got to know him and had been fascinated by the work which he was doing at Gedi. After we had chatted about this and that James told me that he needed my help. He had been alarmed by reports that someone in my district was tampering with an Ancient Monument which had been duly scheduled in accordance with the relevant Ordinance. This must be stopped. Particularly as the building was of major historical importance - being the Great Mosque at Pate. Did I know the facts? And, assuming the reports to be accurate, what action did I propose to take? Oops!

Although every Bajun village in the Islands had its own particular character, the villagers had many common characteristics. They were sometimes considered feckless and improvident, a bunch of rascals who depended principally upon smuggling for their livelihood. The population of Ndau appeared to do just that; and were much admired for their enterprise. But I was captivated by them all and found that with patience, good humour and a little bit of luck most of them could be cajoled into practicing self-help. I chanced to have the necessary luck: a Fairy Godmother had provided me with a magic wand in the form of 100 tons of cement, left in the District Commissioner's store by the Public Works Department when some project was abandoned. This made possible endless deals, with cement and expertise being offered to every community willing to contribute the coral stone, the lime and the labour needed. We managed to build whatever local people decided that they most wanted - a footbridge here, a jetty there, a water catchment tank or a sea wall elsewhere.

The Bajun settlements on the mainland were rather different, for their inhabitants practiced agriculture. Not very skillfully, to be sure. But not under very promising conditions either, for the bush was thick, the soil thin, the rainfall uncertain and the game abundant. Although accounts of it may have been much exaggerated for my benefit, the damage done by herds of elephant was real enough. So I set about persuading the Game Department that help must be provided. After prolonged correspondence it was agreed that some control work would be undertaken. The work was then done to such effect that I looked forward to receiving, on my next visit to the area, the grateful thanks of a relieved population.

Gratitude was indeed expressed, but in the gloomiest possible manner. For the village elders soon informed me that they faced starvation. It was true, they acknowledged, that the elephant had moved elsewhere. Nevertheless no crops would be harvested as hordes of baboon were pilfering the lot. There was only one solution - the Game Department must send someone back to deal with the situation. I scoffed at this. Elephant had been one thing, but baboon were quite another. The villagers could quite well cope with these on their own, and must make up their minds to do so.

My remarks provoked a chorus of protest. I was told that the creatures were far more cunning than I had evidently supposed. All my suggestions for dealing with them were hopelessly unrealistic. Exasperated, I finally said the villagers must ask themselves who was the cleverer - they or the baboon. My question was taken seriously. After they had pondered it their answer was "without any doubt, the baboon". Which dumbfounded me at the time, though it made the village the laughing stock of the district when the story leaked. They nevertheless had the last laugh. For, shamed into it, they later managed to slaughter large numbers of baboon; and as the government was at the time paying a bounty of two shillings per baboon tail they prospered greatly.

Almost every trip brought fresh surprises. There were the times when a Lamu merchant who wanted me to come to his daughter's wedding, put a spell on the government launch to prevent me from setting out on safari; when the launch crew enlightened me about the true nature and origin of sea serpents; when I found to my alarm, all too late, that the Game Department officer controlling elephant expected us to get within a few yards of them before he opened fire; when I thought that I might have to explain to the Treasury how a government Land Rover had come to be washed out to sea off the coast of Italian Somaliland. But these and other stories must wait. Suffice it to say that, like Prospero's island, the district was full of wonders, a place to make you cry out "O brave new world, that has such people in 't".

Kenya Map
Kenya Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 89 and 90: April and October 2005


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