by Peter Lloyd
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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".