Island-Hopping in Kenya’s Lamu Archipelago

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I met a blind man in Matondoni who, 50 years ago, worked on the most majestic dhow on the Swahili coast of East Africa. Long before Tusitiri was refitted as an elegant home, it was a workhorse plying trade routes between Arabia and Mombasa, carrying coffee, spices, and mangrove poles. Sitting beneath a tamarind tree in his home village on the Kenyan island of Lamu, weaving rope for donkey harnesses from memory, Bwana Mzee could still recall his three-month-long journeys on the stately dhow, sailing north to Oman and Yemen on the Kaskazi trade wind and returning home on the Kusi.

In the late 1980s, a Norwegian family, the Astrups, found Tusitiri’s abandoned skeleton on a beach and decided to rebuild it, calling on Bwana Mzee to help put the vessel back together. Afterward, the accomplished craftsman sailed on the dhow for 22 more years, voyaging as far south as the Quirimbas islands in Mozambique, where he lost his heart and fathered a daughter, Asha, but was never to return.

Today visitors can charter the boat from the Astrups to sail up to Kiwayu, a secluded but mesmerizingly beautiful islet near the Somali border. But it is more commonly found plying the waters of the Lamu archipelago, a timeless world of reflected sea and sky. The islands’ mix of Arab architecture, Chinese and Indian cultures, and superb artistry (silversmiths and woodworkers abound) has proved irresistible to travelers since hippies hailed Lamu as Africa’s Kathmandu in the 1960s. The archipelago still attracts curious nomads, its inaccessibility being a draw rather than a hindrance. The three largest islands are the sandy isthmus of Lamu itself, the coralline Manda, and the mysterious Pate, which is only accessible at high tide. Resolutely traditional and almost entirely Muslim, there is nowhere more authentically Swahili along this stretch of shoreline.

The Tusitiri is a languorous base for exploring Lamu’s bustling hamlets and emptier margins. Measuring 65 feet from almond-shaped bow to stern, with a deck polished to a rich patina, it moves with surprising grace and speed; seven sailors are needed to raise anchor and hoist its imposing sails. I joined the dhow in the village of Shela, one of just four settlements on Lamu and a haven for European royalty, artists, and rock stars. We sailed past Lamu Old Town, the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, and on to Matondoni, where Tusitiri was built and Bwana Mzee lived in a simple brick house until he passed away in 2019, not long after my visit. We continued our circumnavigation of the island to anchor at remote Kipungani, a cluster of thatched houses fronted by a deserted beach, where we slept soundly on deck beneath the sparkling equatorial skies.

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