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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

Destination: Lamu Island, Kenya North Coast

Sunday, January 11, 1998

We flew Air Kenya—about an hour-long flight with only one out-of-control child. We landed on Manda Island, east of Lamu. The new climate was evident as soon as the hatch was opened. Tropical! The baggage-handlers put everything on a cart that they wheeled to the baggage claim area, which was a lot like a covered picnic area in your favorite American small town. We were greeted by Ali, who was very hungry—it was Ramadan, and like 99 percent of the population of the island, he was Muslim.

Ali took my husband David and I to the boat, where we waited for the rest of the passengers and cargo, consisting of a washer and dryer and several boxes of booze. The road between Mombassa and Lamu was washed out from the rains of El Ni?o. Since October, all supplies, shipments, and passengers were limited to air or sea modes of transportation. Travel between Mombassa and Lamu by sea took several days. The rains adversely affected many areas. Supplies cost more to ship. Additionally, there were substantially fewer tourists this year, adding to the community’s economic strain.

Kenya north coast map.  Courtesy of the Peponi Hotel Aki.At the Peponi Hotel Aki, a young woman with beautifully sun-kissed blonde hair on bronze skin greeted us. She gave us a quick run-down on the place and showed us to our room. A concrete side-basin with fresh water to rinse off sandy feet preceded the entrance. Upon entering the room, we were taken by its fresh, open-air charm and magnificent view of the beach.

The next order of business was to procure some flip-flops for my husband, so away we went. On our way to the backstreets of Shela Beach, we met a young man who showed us around the neighborhood. He took us to tour a couple beach houses and a mosque built in the 16th century. It was abandoned now, but the villagers intended to renovate it soon. He weaved us through the area until we finally arrived at a store, scored a cheap pair of flips, paid our guide for his time and helpfulness, and went back to the Peponi for a shower and drink.

In the bar, before dinner, we visited with a variety of people. The Peponi is owned by the husband-and-wife team of Lars and Carol. They have a dog (Tusker—a common name in Kenya for dogs and beer) and two children, a boy and a girl. The whole family is blonde and very beachy. Lars has a couple family members visiting including his mother, Vera, and his brother, Nils.

Nils lives and works “up coast” as a fishing guide. The brothers resemble each other strikingly, both with weathered yet handsome, angular features, assumedly a product of their Danish ancestry and years of sun, sea salt, and smoking.

I spent several minutes visiting with Vera. She and her husband started the hotel 30 years ago. Prior to that, they had a farm in Kenya where they raised corn, cattle, hogs, and flowers. When Kenya gained independence, the government offered to buy them out at a very good price. The buyout was intended to give the land back to the native tribes. Vera and her husband planned to move back to their homeland of Denmark. On a day-trip to Lamu, they discovered an old abandoned house on Shela Beach. Lamu Town was only a small fishing village and nearly abandoned as well. They happened to have lunch at a spot in town. The food was no good but the island was irresistible. When the day was done Vera’s husband asked her what she thought about making a better restaurant there. She couldn’t believe the idea but they found themselves owners of the abandoned house at Shela Beach in just over a week. Vera said that she has felt overwhelmed ever since, indicating that she might not have gone to all the trouble if she had known how hard it would be. She was a delightful person. A local but not native, she still clearly loved this place that had been her home for so long.

Before dinner we walked west on the beach. We wanted an even better view of the sunset. The sky was streaked in pink and purple with random clouds billowing. I felt odd about watching the summer sunset so early in the evening—a function of living at 39 degrees north instead of the 2 degrees south of Lamu Island. While the sun, casting a magical luminescence, the nearly full moon rose to the east, equally magnificent. Soon darkness enveloped our world and the moon cast a buttery glow over the calm, high-tide waters. I had never really considered it before—the magnetism of the sea. I had never really spent much time near it. It is an addictive force. I was getting exceedingly loaded on it right then.

Dinner began with fresh sashimi with soy and wasabi. I had never seen such sizeable orders of sashimi. I’ve never eaten fresher tuna. The main course was spicy crab for my husband and drunken prawns for me. The wine was a Chardonnay from South Africa. The dessert was a frozen chocolate pie. The whole evening was luscious.

A walk in Lamu.  Photo courtesy the Peponi Hotel Aki.Monday, January 12

We slept hotly, humidly and fitfully. How lucky we were, though to dodge the incessant El Ni?o rains, which had hampered our adventures on the Kenyan mainland.

We took the boat shuttle into Lamu Town, a mirad of images, both beautiful and ugly. The town is comprised of narrow alleys, limiting its traffic to pedestrians, donkeys, and crude wooden carts. There is one motorized vehicle on the entire island: a Range Rover. This lone vehicle is the exclusive privilege of District Commissioner. Apparently he drives his Range Rover between his house and office, only a couple hundred yards away.

There were tiny shops and restaurants hidden in the tall stucco structures of downtown. At town center was a farmers’ market—a festive, social gathering for the local residents. I wanted to buy root vegetables and tomatoes but decided against it, remembering the massive slabs of tuna from the previous evening. Hundreds of blonde-colored donkeys wandered the maze of pathways. There were cute baby donkeys bucking off imaginary cowboys as well as elderly donkeys, just able to still pull a cart. None of the donkeys had eartags, halters, collars or anything that would identify them.

I wondered if they were community donkeys or if they were “owned.” And what if someone stole someone’s donkey? Knowing no more about the subject and not having anyone to ask, I supposed that the District Commissioner would then have good reason to drive his Range Rover to the Commissioner’s office and sort things out.

The ugly parts were the rampant filth, waste, and excrement in nearly every corner of the town. Sewage ran slugglishly through narrow troughs in the sodden “streets.” The stench was, at times, overwhelming. The flies were relentless. The rains they had experienced over the last couple months were a major contributor to the problems. We learned of a deadly cholera outbreak in the area. We were relieved to know that the hotel had an independent water system, which used osmosis to purify all of its water. However, we were not so naïve to think that we were immune to the possibilities—after all, the close proximity in water and food supplies certainly put us at risk. Moreover, the people who prepared our meals and cleaned our dishes were the local service personnel. While they were employed by a remarkably clean hotel, they still returned to their home conditions when the workday was through.

We walked back to the hotel. Adjacent to the town was the main port where the bulk of the fishing and cargo ships docked. Like any busy port, the water can be filthy, oily, trash-ridden. The sewage outlets added emphasis. The stench was staggering so we circled widely. Where the population of boats dwindled, we veered back to the shoreline, thankful to see depth in the water. Along the way to the hotel, about a mile from town, we entertained ourselves with the hide-and-seek antics of sand crabs and the friendly “jambos” of children passing by.

The people of Lamu are much friendlier than those of Nairobi. While there was still no shortage of panhandlers, hustlers, and the like, they were somehow more polite about their scams. The young children seemed especially excited to see visitors. With bright smiles and their amazing, big, beautiful, black-brown eyes they proclaim, “Jambo!” (Swahili for “Hello”). Unlike many of the other parts of Kenya, they seemed content with a friendly smile and “Jambo!” in return. We learned from our neighborhood tour guide the day before that education is a big part of children’s lives. Most learn Swahili, English, and Arabic languages in addition to the traditional math and science.

The heat and humidity was stifling but I felt guilty to complain about it…chances were good that the temperature in Colorado was freezing and probably 20 below in South Dakota. And here I was contemplating whether to read a book on my veranda or get a couple of minutes of sun.

That evening we went for a sunset sail on a dhow with the Bob Marley guy and his brother Chewey. There was little wind so we moved pretty slowly. This was fine by me. We saw a beautiful, changing sky, setting sun, rising ful moon, some sea turtles, fish bubbles, and a dead donkey’s floating rump. We like to think he was snorkeling.
The sea turtles are a special story for the Peponi Hotel. We were impressed by the thoughtfulness of our hosts to take on their turtle project. Learn more about the Peponi Sea Turtle Project.

The Lamu coast.  Photo courtesy the Peponi Hotel Aki.Thursday, January 15

This morning we took our customary stroll on the beach to the south and west. By now we knew many of the faces of Lamu Island and Shela Beach in particular. There was Karen, the caretaker of the young rich guy from London; and Karen’s friend Leslie. There was Caroline, who lives here; the women from South of Madagascar who speak French; and Faust, the caretaker of Hans, the composer. There was the Bob Marley guy, joint-smoking, Ramadan-breaking, Marley-idolizing, proud new owner of the “Moose Jaw” t-shirt; and his brother Chewey, a good Muslim by comparison.

This being our last day, we wanted a bit more adventure, and went deep-sea fishing with the brother Nils. He was captain of a sleek 32-foot, dual-V8 vessel and a crew of three. The early weather presented us with a horrendous downpour. However, Nils’ relentless enthusiasm brought us around to a fortuitous day of fishing. The sun brightened the sky just as we pushed away from shore. We reeled in plenty for the evening’s feast including three yellowfin tunas. The sashimi portions would be even bigger tonight! Additionally, we caught a mackerel, barracuda, two rainbow runners, two bonita, and an ugly 37 and a half pound Truffally. My arm still hurts. What a grand finale!

My objective in traveling is to taste the local flair—learn about the place, its culture and geography. I learned much about Lamu Island, a place where people have settled and given wonder to the arcing sun and moon, the curving beaches, and the respiring sea. And just as the island is now a small but integral part of me, I am shown that I am a small and integral part of the world around."


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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