Lamu County

Discover Lamu County

Shela Beach overlooking Manda Channel and Manda Island.  Photo Courtesy
Shela Beach overlooking Manda Channel and Manda Island. Image Courtesy

Brief Overview of Lamu County

Much of the sickle-shaped Lamu County – bordered on the northeast, east and southeast by the Indian Ocean – at the southeast corner of Kenya, is generally flat, at between 0 to 50 ms asl, with a total land surface area of 6,273 km2. It is composed of the mainland, 65 Islands (Lamu Archipelago), 130 kms coastline and a marine territory spread over 308.5 km2. Lamu Town on Lamu Island, its largest, is the first target and center of interest of most visitors to Lamu County. Lamu Island itself, along the southeastern area, is reached via boat either from Mokowe Jetty (for those approaching it by road from Malindi), or from Manda Jetty (for those flying in to Manda Airport). Once in Lamu Town, you will find history unfolding round every corner. The little town consisted of a maze alleys and sombre grey-coral-rag houses sometimes enlivened with ornately carved door is recognized as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, for its rich history.

Everything about Lamu Island appears unique. Its natural beauty and laid back outlook attracts travellers eager to experience the charisma of its ancient ways. Its safe streets leads out to the beautiful beaches, to a tropical coastal, and at all times to the warm welcome and quiet hospitality of the natives of Lamu with their fascinating customs and rich culture. The customs of the natives appear to be the most amusing of it all. Not easily accessible, Lamu Island has remained relatively undisturbed by colonization, modernization and even mass tourism.  Travellers to Lamu Island can enjoy a lazy walk through the central street and through the spines of narrow alleys into various wards, which is akin to walking through a living museum.  From Lamu Town travellers may visit Shela Village, Pate and Manda Islands, and enjoy walks through the ancient hamlets, ancient ruins, historic monuments, museums, markets, spectacular beaches, and hotels.

Of a more recent development, the new and modern Port of Lamu (plying the 39 fathoms or 234 feet deep Lamu-Manda Channel) is inevitably set to change the face of Lamu Island and the surrounding areas. As you would expect, this has naturally being received with some angst and antipathy: that the on-going Lamu Port will destroy the history, heritage and cultures of Lamu. “The chronic trauma is characterised by grounded feelings of displacement, dispossession, and alienation.” – Ridwan Laher. A second significant development that’s more solicitously received is the construction of the C112 Garsen-Witu-Lamu Road, linking Lamu County with Tana River and Kilifi Counties, by 2020. The 225 kms drive from Malindi to Mokowe through Garsen is theoretically all-weather and the road is in fact in good state. However during rain season it is regularly breached by flood-water. Certainly, the 20th Century has indeed reached Lamu.

Salient Features of Lamu County

  • County Number 05
  • Area – 6273 km2
  • Altitude – 1010 ft
  • Major Towns – Lamu, Shela, Manda
  • Borders – Kilifi, Garissa, Tana-River

Brief History of Lamu County

By the turn of the 11th Century, Lamu alongside Manda, Pate and Shanga were prosperous trading settlements, all involved in the long distance trade along the Swahili East African Coast and a major hub between Kismayu in the north and Zambezi River in the south. “The coral reefs, together with the large off-shore islands of Pemba, Mafia and Zanzibar gave good shelter from the open ocean” to Lamu. Around the 16th Century, Lamu flourished as a borough trading slaves with the Middle East. During the Portuguese Era, Lamu Archipelago was one of the most rebellious boroughs, and the Portuguese had to undertake a punitive expedition in 1636-7 to supress Lamu, Faza, Manda and Pate Islands. During the middle of the 19th Century, Lamu came under the political influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The Germans claimed Wituland in 1885. Lamu remained a haven of peace during the ‘Mau-Mau revolts’ that afflicted many parts of Kenya.

View of the sea-side street in Lamu Town, Lamu Island.  Photo Courtesy
View of the sea-side street in Lamu Town, Lamu Island. Image Courtesy

Places of Interest in Lamu County

1. Delta Dunes Lodge

Located 35 kms north of Malindi en route Garsen and Lamu, this is probably the only place in the Coast Region of Kenya which properly showcases the Tana River Dunes at its mouth side by side with clean empty beaches and the open ocean. Once a tiny lodge with just one cabin, in 1982, it’s now well known for its spectacular bird life, unfamiliar landscapes and comfortable ambiance with all-round picturesque views. Delta Dunes Lodge has seven open-fronted cottages, perched on top of sand dunes on the side of Kipalo Hills, with a roomy central common area. And is a perfect location to experience these rare natural thrills for a day or two before heading out to Lamu. “It has fabulous views overlooking the Tana River on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. Delta Dune is an Island Lodge”. Access to the lodge is from the B8 Malindi-Garsen-Garissa Road. After an hours drive from Malindi you reach the pick-up point where the host with a small boat waits for you to get you across Tana River. In 20 minutes, you are at the famous Delta Dunes Lodge formerly dubbed as the Tana Delta Lodge.

2. Witu Forest Reserve

Lamu’s terrestrial, inter and sub-tidal ecosystems carve out an interdependent continuum, divided into habitats dominated by keystone species of mangrove forests, sea grass and corals. Of these, forests cover about 34% of Lamu’s land surface area. What’s more, 428 km2 (or 64%) of this forest cover is gazetted and protected against commercial exploitation. These include 382 km2 of mangrove forest and the 42 km2 Witu Forest Reserve (one of the two dense rain forests in Lamu alongside Dodori National Reserve). Non-gazetted forests cover another 280 km2 comprised mainly of Lingi and Boni Forests, and Lake Kenyatta buffer zone. By road to Lamu, Witu Forest Reserve is crossed by C112 Garsen-Witu-Lamu Road between the towns of Witu and Pangani. Best known as the main source for hardwoods used to furbish the unique and ornately decorated doors seen widely on Lamu Archipelago, it was gazetted as a National Forest Reserve in 1927. Witu Forest Reserve contains plenty of wildlife and is a vital migratory corridor, but remains untapped for tourism. It is located 53 kms west of Garsen.

Lamu County: Fragmented Forests Part 1. By 1080 Film & Television

3. Amu Ranch

The 259 km2 Amu Ranch, a little-explored corner of Kenya located adjacent to the Witu Forest Reserve, is a sanctum for endemic wildlife species like the rare Somali Lion and Ader’s Duiker. It also hosts spectacular marine life and varied bird-life in its variegated biosphere comprised of the coast, forest and mangrove areas. Amu Ranch was underway as a group cooperative in the 1970’s instigated by its community who were anxious to protect their land. Their efforts in trying to safeguard these unblemished 64,000-acres of land, much larger than several of Kenya’s famous national parks, were at the onset unsuccessful due to lack of resources and support. Now stabilized through Lamu Conservation Trust’s solid foundations, Amu Ranch and its community have for many years been actively protecting their land, diversity and cultural heritage. For tourism, Amu Ranch has 28 kms of fairly smooth parkways which are motorable year-round. “It is a picture-book wilderness of open areas fringed by Doum and Raffia palms and huge coastal trees such as Baobabs, Tamarinds, Bambakofi (Mahogany) and Figs with rain-filled pools and small lakes adorned with blue and white water-lilies and abundant birdlife everywhere” – Daphne Sheldrick. Half and full day tours at Amu Ranch need to be booked in advance ( or through 704 748 739). It’s reached via a 30 minutes boat ride from Lamu Town.

It was the first time I had been to Amu Ranch, and it was, indeed, a most memorable visit.   Omari Twalib Mzee who heads Project Amu met us at the jetty where we landed by boat, accessing Amu through one of the many Mangrove creeks whose watery fingers reach into the mainland.  We drove the short distance through herds of coastal topi to Farouk’s Camp, one of two of Amu’s base camps.   Built by the Amu staff, the camp was simple but extremely practical, made purely from natural materials.   The Amu team is an inspiration, here everyone does everything, and we were treated to a royal welcome by the Amu rangers. – DWST  

4. Kipini Conservancy

Situated near Lake Kenyatta, the expansive inter-territorial Kipini Conservancy, shared by Lamu and Tana-River Counties, is among the best preserved coastal areas whose ecological gamut is both wondrous and highly specialized, skirted by Tana River Delta and parts of Witu Forest Reserve. It is both a shelter and wintering habitat for plenty of migratory bird populations. Kipini also offers a safe refuge for prolific threatened native shore birds. Moreover, archaeological sites containing the ruins of a stone cemetery, minarets and other intriguing historic buildings make up for a great historical adventure. The forest itself consisting of purely of natural trees and vegetation is rich in terms of resources, owing to the trees that have got many uses including timber usage, medicinal value among others. Among the trees contained in Kipini Conservancy include: Dume plams, Triclulia Emetia, Mvule, Terminalia, black palms, elephant tree, among others. Additionally, it has a diversity of marine-fauna associated with more than 1,000 coral fish and turtles. Several species of whales, dolphins and the globally threatened dugong can also be sighted. It’s located near Mpeketoni.

Spatial Location of Kipini in Lamu County
Spatial Location of Kipini in Lamu County

5. Lake Kenyatta

There are two small lakes in Lamu County: Lake Amu and Lake Kenyatta. Both these lakes are a vital source of fresh water with many opportunities for survival and growth, and have traditionally supported fresh water fisheries although this is now faced with siltation challenges resulting from farmlands encroaching the riparian. Also known as Lake Mukunganya, the little-known Lake Kenyatta at Mpeketoni covers about 5 km2 fringed by indigenous trees and shrubs used by the natives mainly as wood fuel. Its faunal profile includes almost 140 recorded bird species and plenteous marine life like tilapia, clarias, prottopterus, hippos, bucks and plains game. Lake Kenyatta is found at Mpeketoni just 60 kms before Mokowe Jetty. Also of interest at Mpeketoni are the historic ruins containing a small step end tomb of four risers, turning the corners at the ends, measuring about 1.5 by 2.5 ms, at the location where ‘Mpekatoni Ruins’ are supposed to be.

6. Lamu (Manda Bay) Port

The Swahili Coast has a multiplicity of deep inlets which in some cases enclose assorted islands. Such islands, because of their protected positions and deep anchorages attracted numerous settlements. A number of the towns like Kilwa, Mombasa and Lamu are situated on such sites. And Lamu has occupied a fairly prominent place in the trade of the Indian Ocean since the earlier centuries, when it was known as far Greece as Azania; or again as Al-Idrisi around the 12th Century. In a bid to recapture its former glory, plans are in place to put up a new sea-port at Lamu consisting of 32 deep sea berths. Construction of the initial three berths is nearing completion. The completion of the Lamu-Witu-Garsen Road has been a knock-on effect in-lieu of movement of cargo from the Lamu Port, which is a part of the ambitious Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport, more proper LAPSSET Corridor Project, that covers over 12 counties and constitutes 7 key components. To appreciate the scale of the new port, and perhaps ponder how much it will sway the ways of life of exotic Lamu, this can be reached by hiring one of many hop on hop off boat taxis docked at the jetties.

7. Lamu Island

The inhabitants of the island call it Amu and from this the name of one of the three major Ki-Swahili dialects, Ki-Amu, is derived. The more popular version of the name, Lamu, may be a corruption of Al-Amu; the prefix being the definite article in Arabic. At Mkokoni (northeast of Lamu and Pate near Kiwayu Island) the coastline turns slightly to the west, in a manner suggesting that a fault in the coral ridge may have caused a partial collapse causing the combination of sea water and the shallow bed of soil create excellent conditions for the growth of thick mangrove forests. Here the more important islands of Lamu archipelago: Faza, Manda and Lamu, are found. Lamu has an excellent natural harbour and is fringed along the west, north and north-east by mangrove forests. No crops can be cultivated on its sandy soil, but there are shambas or cultivated grounds west of the town where mangoes and coconuts are grown. The world-famous Lamu Town is set along its northeastern flanks across from Manda Airport with Manda Island set east. Lamu Island and Lamu Town are only reachable by boat.

Spatial Location of Lamu Island in Lamu County
Spatial Location of Lamu Island in Lamu County

8. Matondoni Dau Workshop

As there is no wheeled traffic, and the streets are principally used for pedestrian communications, every visitor to Lamu Archipelago should have as an object of the journey to learn more about boats, which are the primary mode of transport here. And the variations are many and interesting: mtepe, jahazi, mashua and, of course, dau (or dhow) the largest and most intricate of the sea vessels found here. Lamu’s veritable historic success in trading relied heavily on the reliability of its locally assembled traditional daus to sail as far as India, Egypt, China and Arabia.  The Bajuni Tribe (sometimes spelt Bajun) native to Lamu Archipelago has held on to the ancient craft of dau building at a site christened as the Dau Workshop. The intricate and laborious knack of building daus, much like the ornate carvings on the doors of Lamu, has existed on the island for 2,000 years. Matondoni Dau Workshop is situated in Matondoni Village in the northern area of Lamu Island, reachable either via the 1.5 kms pathway connecting it to Lamu Town, or via a short boat ride from Lamu Town, Shela Village, or Manda Island.

9. Matondoni Ruins

At Matondoni are three mosques, all of which are still in use. At the north end of the Riyadha (or Friday) Mosque is a tomb which had a 1 ms wide octagonal pillar, a section of which can still be seen on the ground northeast of the tomb. In front of this tomb is another, interesting for the roof of makuti that covers the tomb, resting on the top of the five-riser step ends. About 80 metres south of the mosque is a small tomb with four-riser step ends; on the east wall was a small tombstone, with an inscription too eroded to read. West of the mosque is a recent stone tomb with four piers on each of the side walls and a high central pier on the east and west walls, the purpose of which is to support a makuti roof over the structure. There is a wooden door in the east wall. It was built by the grandson of the deceased, on the mother’s side, and is the object of visitation for prayers. West of the lisikiti va Kuru is a group of five old tombs and a more recent grave. Near the sea is a ruined house with two central and two chambers.

10. Tusitiri Dhow

For many a century, Lamu has been an established seafaring community and many local songs and fables narrate of these traditional daus sailing to as far as Arabia and India. Lamu Island is the home of the dau, sometimes called mtepe, which dominate its coastline all day long. On any given day, the channel linking Lamu and Manda Islands is enlivened with finely-crafted daus that stand much higher over the cornucopia of boats and infallibly an eye-catching spectacles for locals and trippers alike, as they majestically and effortlessly sail, each leaving in its wake a timeless image of the past, the present and future of Lamu. One of the lionzed daus of Lamu is the refurbished “Tusitiri Dhow” that represents the cream of this ancient craft. “Tusitiri has ventured as far south as the Quirimbas archipelago in northern Mozambique, but is usually based in Lamu, where the archipelago is ideal for sailing and adventure”. This offer holiday-makers multi day safaris as well as one or half day excursions from Lamu. All tours, half day or one or more nights, are booked on exclusive terms and are tailor-made for each voyage depending on tripper interests as well as the seasons and the tides.

With her Zanzibar antiques, Swahili textiles and freshly caught, masterfully prepared seafood, few on-board experiences can shimmer so close to the historical tradition of boat travel as this one (Tusitiri Dhow). – Financial Times

11. Kipungani Ruins

At Kipungani, on the southwest side of Lamu Island, are a ruined mosque, some tombs, and scatters of pottery. The mosque stands to its full height, though in bush; it was probably a three-aisle “southern” type. The mihrab was wide and deep, and appears to have been removed from the mosque. At the south end of the mosque was the cistern for ablutions, fed from a five-sided well southeast of the mosque. There are two tombs at the edge of the sea at Kipungani, of which one is a large square tomb with probably seven-riser step ends. The seaward side of this tomb has collapsed, and only the northeastern corner of a tomb that once abutted it to the south still remains. Kipungani is also home to Kipungani Explorer, a secluded ocean-facing which contains 13 spacious bandas that sit at one end of Kipungani Bay. “The bandas are built entirely from local materials, with mkeka palm floors and makuti thatch roofs woven by the natives of nearby village”, from where guests can enjoy its palm lined shaded 600-ms beachfront.

12. Kizingoni Beach

“The beautiful beach at Shela, where the Peponi Hotel stands sentinel, has now become well known. But there are many other great stretches of golden sands – at Kipungani and Kizingoni reached by sailing dhow”. Kizingoni Beach is served by the Kizingoni Villas (all fully furnished in colonial Arab Swahili style — with tropical hardwood furniture and attractive fabrics, fittings and fixtures sourced from Lamu, Kenya, Morocco and the Far East) and Kizingo Lamu Island Resort.

13. Lamu Town

As one of the oldest Swahili settlements in Eastern Africa, Lamu Town of coral-timber-build houses with seaward facing verandas and carved doors, bringing together Arab, Indian, Swahili and European styles, has now been continually settled for over 700 years. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, this is best-known for its narrow labyrinth streets modeled from old Arab towns mtaa” layout. Although the 20th Century has reached Lamu, there is certainly no much evidence of it, and it has hardly changed since the 18th Century when it pieced itself together. Travellers to Lamu Island and its surroundings, usually for a weekend getaway, in their few moments in Lamu can scarcely comprehend let alone participate in many of the centuries old time-worn traditions. Still and all, most succumb to the rich culture, fascinating sights and numerous interests.

Lamu Town consists of three parts: the old town west of the main street where the Swahili stone houses are found; the 19th Century additions of Indian styled builds along the promenade; and the impermanent mud and wattle part mainly to the south where the poorer families live. The first and second parts meet at the main street running north-south and has over a hundred and fifty shops. Opposite the main jetty, south of the stone town, is a large piazza bound by the early 19th Century fort on the west and the lawn’s market on the south. Just north of the fort is Pwani Mosque which claims its origin to 1370. All in all, the town stretches between the sea to the east and a low range of hills to the west for a length of about 1.3 kms. Its maximum width occurs roughly at the middle where it measures 300 ms. To the north and south of this point the landward edge sweeps gently seaward, giving the town the shape of a segment of a circle.

14. Lamu World Heritage Site

This is comprised of a collection of buildings on 15.6 hectares in Lamu Town, with Lamu Museum, Lamu Fort, German Post Museum and Swahili House being the main attractions. “The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas provide a unified visual impression of the town when approaching it from the sea” – UNESCO. Lamu has maintained its social and cultural integrity, as well as retaining its authentic building fabric up to the present day. Once the most important trade centre in East Africa, Lamu has exercised an important influence in the entire region in religious, cultural as well as in technological expertise”. One of the criteria for its elevation to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 2001, was “the architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrate the cultural influences that have come together there over several hundred years from Europe, Arabia, and India, utilizing traditional Swahili techniques to produce its prominent culture”.

15. Lamu Museum

The double-storey medieval Lamu Museum, originally built in 1892 as a fort and later reestablished as a museum in December 1971, collects, preserves and expositions the far-reaching history of Lamu Island. This provides very useful assistance for travellers to the Lamu Archipelago through illustrious stories of Lamu’s history from its trade era to present. It has a great memorabilia library, and multiple festivals are hosted within its courtyards. It is in possession of about 1,000 pieces of Sassanian Islamic pottery collected mainly from nearby island towns like Kipungani. Lamu Museum is located about 200 ms north of Lamu Fort along the town’s main seafront street, that’s easily accessible on foot.

16. Swahili House Museum

This is found close to Lamu Museum and is visited on consecutive terms with Lamu Museum and German Post Office Museum using one ticket bought at Lamu Museum. Opened on January 8th, 1987, the antiquated Swahili House Museum was revamped and fitted-out to conserve and demonstrate the rich Swahili architecture for trippers to Lamu Island. It depicts both the form and function of a typical Swahili Home. The stone-built house of Lamu is a self-contained building housing all living and sleeping areas that a large family and its domestic staff require. It stands on a small plot averaging less than 250 m2 in area, and except for the internal courtyard, it covers the plot entirely, giving a coverage ratio of over 75% per floor. Most existing houses in Lamu are double-storeyed, often with an additional pent-house. The ground floor is, by tradition, the staff quarters and the first floor contains the rooms of the owner and family. The entrance to the house is through a porch daka about 3 ms wide, raised one to three steps above the level of the street and more often lined with stone seats.

The daka has two carved doors, usually double leafed, one leading to the ground floor, the other to the first floor. The door leading to the first floor opens to the staircase which half-way up gives access to a sabule or guest room. This is not a constant feature in all houses; it’s sometimes placed at ground floor, accessible from the daka through a separate external door. The staircase ends at a covered landing (tekani) overlooking an open rectangular courtyard (kiwanda). This is the nucleus of the house where most of the daytime activities (play and laundry) take place and around which the rest of the spaces are organized. Opposite the tekani is another verandah serving as the family’s work space, attached to which is a bathroom and toilet. The third side of the kiwanda very often has a staircase leading to the pent-house where the kitchen is placed. The other room are more private spaces used as bed-spaces partitioned off by curtains or walls. In larger houses a fourth space, nyumba ya kati, is sometimes also provided. It may lead to an extra room (mtatato) which spans the street in the form of a bridge, wikio.

House walls are built of uncoursed coral in lime mortar. Roofs and floors are of thick coral supported on wood joists at close centres, rarely more than 30 cms. Rooms conform to a constant module which limits their width to 2.7 to 3 ms.

17. German Post Office Museum

Established in November of 1888 by Clement Denhardt and re-opened in 1996, the pocket-sized German Post Office Museum served as the only liaison office to German controlled region of Witu. The Germans had gained Witu as part of the never-ending concessions, exceptions, and adjustments with the British Empire during the scramble for East Africa. The interest of the European in Lamu had coincided with the decline of Lamu as a economic hub, which had been marked by Maasai raids and the famine of 1884 that caused some plantation villages to be abandoned. The situation was worsened by the cattle plague of 1889 and the increased restrictions on slave labour. In the north, the Germans were inciting the ruler of Witu to lay claim to the sizable coastal stretch between Kipini and Kiwayu, by instituting taxes on the produce of the islands’ plantations. In the south, the Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar, unable to stem the flutters of German imperialism, conceded to the British East African Association (BEAA) the right to administer the coast between Vanga and Kipini in his name. The combined outcome of these factors was the beginning of the disintegration of the Swahili coast unit. During the following years the coast became a stage for European rivalries, in a strife subsequently put-right by the Anglo-German Agreements of 1886 and 1890. In 1895 Lamu was formally declared a protectorate of Britain. German Post Office Museum displays a great deal of the records, photos and other memorabilia from the two year period of its operation in the Witu Region.

18. Lamu Fort

The stately Lamu Fort, open in 1821, is a grand metaphor for Lamu’s prosperity and dominance after foiling Mombasa and Pate Island in the Battle of Shela. In 1812, joint forces of Pate and Mombasa were repulsed by Lamu in a fierce battle on the beaches of Shela. In the same year Lamu sought and received protection from the Sultan of Oman; and Lamu Fort was built and garrisoned by Omani soldiers. Lamu, thanks to its pleasant relationship with the Omani rulers who later established the Sultanate of Zanzibar, grew into a busy tradepost. By the middle of the 19th Century, its daus were trading in ivory, mangroves, oil seeds, hides, grains, cowries, tortoise shells and hippo teeth in large quantities. Ivory was bought from the Wasania hunters through the intermediary of Kipini, Kau and the other settlements of Tana River. The protective presence of Lamu Fort in the middle of Lamu Town, and visible for miles around it, spurred growth of the town with many of its houses been built around it. Henceforth, the excellent siting of the town and its fort protected them against attack from the mainland warlike tribes which at the time almost destroyed many mainland and island towns like Kilwa and Mombasa. Today, the huge open space in-front of Lamu Fort, under the shade of casuarina trees, is a treasured public area popular with playing of the Bao, an ancient traditional board game. The 17th Century was the episode of Pate’s supremacy, during which time Lamu was a subsidiary of Pate.

Spatial Location of Lamu Fort in Lamu Town
Spatial Location of Lamu Fort in Lamu Town

19. Masjid Riyadha

The southern side of Lamu Town has a handful of hallowed Mosques (Masjids) but perhaps none is as important as Masjid Riyadha, that’s easily recognized by its roof-ring of yellow and iconic dash of green on its foyer. The importance of Lamu as a Swahili Centre dates back hundreds of years, and since the 19th Century its importance as an Islamic religious centre for Eastern and Central Africa has grown exponentially. Its importance as a religious hub was first put under the limelight by Habib Swaleh, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, who visited Lamu in 1866 from Comoros Island and helped to grow the Islam faith and festivals notably of Maulid Festival held annually at the Riyadha. The Maulid celebrates the birthday of the Prophet. Here, one must pause a little to consider the reasons and then the results of the success of Islam in the Coast Region of Kenya. It demanded little in the way of religious duties or ritual; but offered in return an enhanced social position, signified by the cap and gown, a membership in a large community and, not least, a paradise with green lawns, rich orchards, lots of attending hourls and so on. This is found near Lamu Fort.

20. Mosque College of Lamu

Located alongside Masjid Riyadha, this offers a beneficial book room to further the exercise of learning about the history, application, and influence of Islam in Lamu. The Mosque College of Lamu stands in the middle of a large open space south of Lamu Fort, a space usually packed and filled with dancers at Maulid Festival. The Mosque College was launched in 1900. Its founder Habib Swaleh (sometimes referred to as Al-Habib Jalih) was a Comoran Arab of Hadhrami stock who arrived in Lamu at the end of the 19th century and lived there until his death in 1933. The academy runs courses lasting two to five years and has students from countries as far apart as the Congo and Madagascar. Al-Habib is also responsible for the introduction of a new and controversial cult, that of music and song in mosques. The mosque he founded, Masjid Riyadha, which is also the seat of the academy, holds song sessions three times each week during which Arabic verse in praise of the Prophet is sung to the music of tambourines.

21. Lamu Catholic Church

Although Lamu Island is by and large a Muslim oriented Island with upwards of 20 Mosques, it is not however not a closed society, as epitomized by the Lamu Catholic Church found at the heart of Lamu. Completed in 1972, Mary Mother of Jesus Church, widely popular as Lamu Catholic Church, is a tangible heritage of Lamu. Interestingly, this adopts the local Swahili architecture to delightfully blends into the landscape of the ancient town. Lamu Catholic Church is located along the main seaside street at Lamu near Yumbe House and Lamu Museum.

22. Lamu Market

Just as it holds true that “you can never go wrong by investing your travel time in learning other cultures and investing your time in the human beings within them,” so does it also hold true that a visit to Lamu Market is one of the best ways to appreciate the stripped-down way of life of Lamu, and preferably at the busier morning hours. A trip to the Lamu Market is a welcome change from the monotony and comfort of the secluded oceanside resorts and where one gets to marvel at the market-calisthenics; all governed by the sharply spoken Swahili traders. For the discerning intrepid, the strong Swahili accent heard at Lamu Island shows great variation from that heard across other regions of the coast, where Swahili is the predominant language. Lamu Market, within Lamu Town, has a profusion of tropical fruit stalls, fish and meat markets and spice vendors.

23. Tamarind Tree Cafe

Like with many things on Lamu Island, the food is exotic and it stacks traits of many world cuisines, picked up over centuries from the disparate visitors who came into Lamu and where spices were a revered merchandise. What’s more, its exotic cuisine is open for inspection by callers to the island in one of many sea-side eateries, and momentously at the venerable Tamarind Tree Cafe which has been operational for almost 100 years. The quirky Tamarind Tree Hotel, build around a big Tamarind Tree, serves a melange of Swahili delicacies (notably of the fresh sea dishes) and is a typical site to be part of the living-history of Lamu.

24. Lamu Donkey Sanctuary

Owing to its remoteness, no roads and oddly narrowed streets, Lamu Town has sustained the old-age tradition of donkeys as the main mode of transport. The oceanfront is thronged by dozens of donkeys and their porters; which for first-time callers to Lamu Island is a memorable phenomenon. Since 1987, the Lamu Donkey Sanctuary has been a free-of-charge donkeys-only pit-stop which caters as keen as mustard to 3,000 (+) donkeys on the island. Modernization can look disruptive to this tradition, as anthropologists would explain, and there seems to be much going againist the donkey tradition. But, the traditional donkey life on Lamu Island is still surprisingly full of life.  It is not where it used to be, but outsider’s concern that the traditional ‘donkey ways’ of Lamu Island are almost extinct is not justified.  At the moment, it is likely to prove more resilient than its detractors fear.  The shortcomings, and they are considerable, will spring up later. In fact, more recently, Lamu moderated use of motorcycles on the Island.

25. Floating Bar and Restaurant, Lamu

This is situated almost equidistant between Lamu and Shela along the Manda-Lamu Chanel. It’s the latest addition to Lamu’s eateries, and here you can enjoy a good old sun-downer drink or sea-foods with the wind in your hair and the pretty ocean around you. The concept and construction is pretty simple yet the experience in anything but simple. “The Floating Pub and Restaurant in Lamu Island is one of the few spots where tourists can drink because in the old town, there is no clubbing or having wild parties” – Kalume Kazungu. That said, their biggest trump card is finely prepared seafood cuisines specializing in pan-fried prawns, calamari, octopus and jumbo prawns, as well as, in continental dishes like pizzas, salads and spaghetti. To jazz-up the quiet nights, they host a variety of musical and entertainment talents from Lamu and beyond. This is open daily between 10 am to about 11 pm, and easily reached via the hop-on hop-off boats.

26. Shela Village

3 kms south of Lamu brings you to one of the awesome experiences of Kenya’s Coast, at Shela. “Diani is said to be Kenya’s finest beach, and for those who have not seen Shela and Kiwayu this is probably true”. Shela’s sandy bench that rises about 25 ms at the estuary of Lamu Bay is as salubrious as any paradisal beach. It’s marked by large sand dunes formed by the north-east monsoon that blows between November and February. Shela Village, now occupied by a population of about six hundred, offers an unparalleled experience as you live side by side with locals in hotels intermingled with village houses. Every passing moment at Shela offers a new experience of living through the events of the day; accented by quiet early mornings infused with tropical melodies as birds and insects give wake to a new day, to the obligatory morning greetings shared over walls and sometimes across houses, and the morning and evening call to prayer to bring music and light gossip into the balmy night. “Lamu and Shela come to life very early in the morning, succumbs to the Swahili equivalent of siesta – when even the avaricious and multitudinous shopkeepers close their portals – and revives again after evening prayers”. A few days stay at Shela is a tonic in relaxed living.

Shela is probably over 500 years old and reached its zenith in the middle of the last century. Impressively, the street facades are uniform and, except for entry doors openings, opaque. Many front doors are endowed with embellishment as to make them unique components and to restore the identity of the house in the setting of the standardized facades. “The plan of the Swahili stone house gives maximum length to communication lines between rooms; a similar quality is achieved in the streets by staggering the front doors on plan; both devices are brought about by considerations of privacy”. Most existing houses in Shela are at-least double storeyed, sometimes with additional floors and penthouses but keeping to the same style of build. Here too, most of the houses are enliven with porch madaka, door carvings, Kuranic inscriptions and geometric patterns. In a captivating twist, almost all houses at Shela face south, offering two disparate experiences at sunrise and sunset. There are plenty of hotels and villas catering to various types of guests and needs. These include Moon Houses (Full Moon, Kiwandani, Mama Daktari, Betty’s Suite, Garden House, New Moon, Fisherman and Shela Sea Suq) which are privately owned villas built in pukka Swahili style.

Most Beautiful Town in Kenya – Shela, Lamu Island

27. Friday Mosque

Not to be missed on any trip to Shela is a look-see of the Friday Mosque, easily recognized by its 18 ms tall conical minaret approached by a spiral staircase of fifty eight steps. Covering 291 m2, this is one of the oldest Mosques at Shela and Lamu whose pillar draws architectural influence from Omani style prevalent in 1800’s. Redolent of Lamu’s nobility days, it was built during the same period as the Lamu Fort. Unique to Friday Mosque at Shela is its minaret. These are rare. At Lamu Island, only this one exists. Absence of minarets has been attributed to possible influence from Ibadhis, a purist Muslim sect who fled from Iraq during the 10th Century and settled, among other places, in the M’zab area south of the Sahara in Algeria where they founded a chain of townships. Until the arrival of Shafii sharifs at the East Africa Coast, the salient Muslim sect was Ibadhi. This Mosque follows the high involvement ratio scale of streets and open spaces at intimate levels. It has also had the effect of reducing the “personal space” of the Swahili to a minimum. The prayer hall of Friday mosque hosts the entire male population of Shela during Friday noon prayers. It is located near Peponi Hotel.

28. Forodhani House

On arrival at Shela Jetty, the beautiful Forodhani House christened as “a dream house along the beach of Shela” provides an epistrophal example of Shela’s fine architecture. Forodhani, the Swahili equivalent of “look-out post”, enjoys a first rate location right on Shela Beach overlooking the vibrant jetty, the village and the Indian Ocean, which separates Lamu Island from Manda Island. “Built in authentic Swahili style and exquisitely finished, it sleeps comfortably 10 to 12 people, in 5 en suite bedrooms ( 3 double and 2 triple), all with breathtaking but peaceful views.” At ground floor, a fully quiped kitchen, the dining terrace with zidaka niches, a large lounge alongside the pool offer lots of different areas to take it easy in. “From the terrace of the 1st and 2nd floors, you overlook the whole channel and the view gives onto Lamu Town and the whole Archipelago. At your feet, the sails of the dhows skim the house, aiming for Lamu, Manda or the open ocean. On the roof terrace, the view is really staggering.” – Forodhani

29. Peponi Hotel

Rather unmistakable for its bright roughcast outer wall finished with uncoursed coral in lime mortar, its seafacing restaurant raised to head level of pedestrians en route Shela Beach and the relic carronade (a short large-calibre cannon) still in original position oriented seaward, Peponi Hotel has been a landmark resort at Shela Beach since 1967. Run by the Korschen family who happened upon the old building by chance in the 1960’s while on holiday at the Kenyan Coast, they converted the aged Arab style house to one of the finest boutique hotels in this area. The hotel has a choice of 28 ocean-facing rooms, each with a unique decor and lay out. Guest have a choice of superior or standard rooms; superior rooms being differentiated by their location, size and private outside area with swing bed. All the rooms have ensuite bathrooms, overhead fans inside the mosquito net and safes. Unique to Peponi Hotel are its gardens. A medley of exotic plants and tropical palms collected from around the world. The elegant and variegated gardens have over 90 different palm trees, delightful flowers and atypical herbs. Over the past 45 years it has introduced palms from Asia, Europe, North Africa and South America to create the one-of-a-kind colorful tropical paradise. Their sought-after restaurant and watering-hole are an epicenter of activities at Shela.

30. Shela Beach

Peponi Hotel and Fort at Shela about 700 ms southerly mark the gateposts for the more popular section of Shela Beach. This sits at the extreme southeast tip of the helmet-shaped Lamu Island along Lamu-Manda Channel. As you round the bend at Fort at Shela, westerly heading, the longer 3 kms section of Shela Beach with the open ocean before you unfolds spectacularly. At the west end of this section of Shela Beach the sand is interrupted by thickets and swamps. On the other side is the small village of Kipungani, from which a road runs parallel to the shore to Matondoni and continues in a southerly direction towards Lamu Town 4 kms away. Both sections of Shela Beach are laid back with hardly more than a handful of trippers. The first is liked because of its convenient distance, the picture-postcard setting with Manda Island ahead and the hulking dunes at the back. What’s more, the umpteen vessels sailing along the channel offer fine views, and the locals abode seldom pass by without exchanging warm waving greetings and pleasantries. Sun and sand is dainty here. You simply walk there, find a shaded patch on the dunes to stow carry-ons (perfectly safe) and enjoy, sometimes to yourself, a most memorable beach. There are a handful of good seaside eateries (near Shela Jetty) to grab a snack or meal, to include: Peponi, Kijani Restaurant, Stopover Restaurant and Luq Tabassam Cafe. A word of advise is necessary is here. Shela, and Lamu, are overall conservative societies and dress code matters. As a rule of thumb when heading to beach from Shela, cover up fittingly. You can acquire a local shuka or a local “dirra” dress at Shela.

31. The Fort at Shela

The impressive, audacious and luxurious square courtyard Fort at Shela Hotel, which reenacts and honours the old Omani-Style architecture, opened it doors to the public in 2001. Reminiscent of the venerable Siyu Fort, the Fort at Shela, justly earning its status as one of the iconic hotel establishments in Lamu, is an epitome of both privacy and seclusion. True to the Omani style architecture, the accentuation is on the enclosed spaces inside and not the exterior articulation. “The Fort is constructed of local coral stone and is enclosed by an imposing 50-foot high sandstone wall. The large Omani style heavy wooden entrance doors, decorated with iron studs, open onto the main floor of the property, where large arches surround the central courtyard. The living area, lower dining area and lounge look onto the aesthetic pool and the beautiful garden”. For lodging, the Fort at Shela has 9 en suite double rooms of which 7 look out to the courtyard. Sunset dhow trips can be arranged. It’s located on the south end of Shela Beach.

32. The Maljis Resort

This sits roughly between Peponi Hotel and Fort at Shela on the Manda side, between an ever-growing chain of resorts along this prime area. There’s every reason to visit Lamu for anyone who loves history, great philosophy, culture, music and arts; or for anyone who simply wants to get lost in a timeless island with an authentic and honest-to-goodness delight. The way of life in Lamu has gone untouched for over 700 years. The middle-upper budget Maljis Resort, with 25 exquisite deluxe rooms and suites divided into three beachfront villas, is the debonair Swahili designed retreat which caters luxuriously for holiday-makers who fancy a little splendor in this timeless paradise. Other amenities at the Maljis include two bars and two swimming pools. Some of the top activities here include Lamu Dhow Adventure, Swahili cooking classes, Massai Warrior Experience, jungle gym, cycling trip, and snorkeling trips to Manda Toto Island.

33. Takwa Ruins

At the southeastern fringe of Manda Island, 2 kms east of the Maljis Hotel, on a low hill, sits the famous Takwa Ruins, which, according to J. Kirkman (who first excavated the site) belong to the 16th and 17th Centuries. As with many adage centres along the Swahili Coast, Takwa was deserted mysteriously in the 17th Century, presumably for the lack of fresh water. The Pate chronicles claim that the towns at Manda Island succumbed to the power of Pate and a section of the inhabitants escaped across the creek to Lamu Island. The story is continued in the Lamu chronicle which says that although the people of Lamu were prepared to give them shelter they did not, however, permit them to build their houses of stone. Takwa Ruins have the remains of a large mosque; above its mihrab is a pillar. The feature appears once more in the 15 Century domed mosque of Kilwa where the stone pillar is fluted. There are remains of a second town just east of Takwa. The center of interest at Takwa is the stone column about 2.5 ms high at the northern end. There are didactic panels at the site providing plenty of useful information for travellers to the ruins, courtesy of National Museums of Kenya. Takwa Ruins are approached from the mainland (Shela or Lamu) via a narrow mangrove fringed channel into Manda Island. Allow yourself at least two hours to get to the ruins, although many a travel writer insist the boat tour and walk takes an hour. Once at the jetty, there is a raised boardwalk leading to the ruins.

Spatial Location of Takwa Ruins on Manda Island
Spatial Location of Takwa Ruins on Manda Island

34. Manda Island

For first-time trippers to Lamu County, sailing across the channel from Manda Island to Lamu Island is resonant with how the earliest traders, explorers and adventurers arrived here centuries ago. The surreal short voyage abode the local jahazis to old town, or to its islands, is a universal welcome to the exotic Lamu.  Manda Island on the other hand, with its empty sandy beach, remains sparsely populated with a number of resorts along the Manda-Lamu Channel. Once the site of three thriving towns in eons past, Manda’s long and short story is easily demonstrable in the numerous and elaborate ancient ruins scattered across it. In point of fact, the earliest known Swahili site is that of the 9th Century town of Manda which was excavated by Neville Chittick in 1966. He also uncovered 10th Century houses built of square coral blocks in rough courses with mud and lime mortar. There is evidence of 9th and 10th Century trade with Iran. Parts of the seaward wall of the town, built of large coral blocks weighing up to one ton, have survived. In his view, Chittick’s thought this was the creation of colonizers from overseas. “This, if correct, confirms a reference by Al-Mas’udi to Muslim settlers to the Coast in the 8th Century”. Manda Island, hosting Manda Airport, is separated from Lamu Island (west) by the 700 ms Manda-Lamu Channel and from Pate Island (northeast) by a 5 kms channel. The shores of Lamu, Manda and Pate Island and the area along Kiunga Reserve are extensively covered with mangroves, except in a few places that are directly exposed to the Indian Ocean.

35. Manda Toto Island

One of the treasured activities on a long day out sailing in Lamu is snorkeling and swimming at the Manda Toto and Kinyika Reefs immediately northeast of the larger Manda Island. A motorized boat will get there in under 2-hours from either Lamu or Shela, or for double the price and half the time a speed boat can be hired. The largest of the archipelago (islands) are Pate Island, Manda Island and Lamu Island, all closely linked. Smaller islands include Kinyika, Kiwayu that lie within Kiunga Marine National Reserve. Manda Toto, Faza, Kizingitini, Mtangawanda among many other small islands are only tens of meters wide. To protect one of the best coral reefs in the Archipelago, Manda Toto Island, buoys have been put in the snorkeling area to prevent breaking of coral. And as it is a breeding area, a fishing ban has been put in place using Pate and Shanga as the protectors. Across from Manda Toto, on Manda Island, sits the long-standing Manda Bay Resort; a small boutique lodge located on the tip of an idyllic island.

36. Nabahani Ruins, Pate Island

The highest population density in Lamu County is found in the islands of Lamu (Mkunumbi Ward) and Pate (Faza Ward), and the mainland area of Mpeketoni (Bahari and Hongwe Wards). Pate Island, with three townships and a number of smaller settlements, is the largest island in the Archipelago. Pate, the main town, is situated to the southwest of the island. Historically, this was a city state of importance during the 17th and 18th Centuries. As the chronicles claim, Pate was a place of consequence as early as the 14th Century when the Nabahanis are supposed to have established their sultanate there. “A poem written in Pate in 1652 suggests that by this time the town was a centre of literary activity.” Over the 16th and 17th Century, Pate’s relation with the Portuguese was of perpetual defiance. Among the Swahili city states it was the only one to dare face them in bloody street fighting, finally forcing them to flee in 1679. However, because of later strife with the Omani Arabs, it helped to reinstate the Portuguese in 1728. Pate got down to a phase of rapid decline after losing the Battle of Shela in 1812.

Part of the astounding ruins scattered around Pate Town, some thought to date back to as early as the 9th Century, are the crumbling Nabahani Ruins; which later merged with its early center buildings. Nabahani were a group of ousted prominent Arabs who settled into the existing settlement at Pate Island some time in the 9th Century. Also prominent on Pate Island are the ruins of the old Swahili towns of Shanga and Faza and the great Siyu Fort. At her prime, Pate was a prominent trade centre which dominated most trade in Lamu. During the 17th Century, Portuguese succeeded in asserting the ascendancy over the larger stretch of the Coast. Portuguese garrisons occupied several points at the Coast, and kept a customs house in Pate. Later that century, Portugal’s position in the Indian Ocean was deteriorating in the face of intense competition from Dutch and English. Swahili dissent was led by Pate, aided by the Omani, rising against the Portuguese five times during the 17th Century. Portugal’s end came with the capture of Fort Jesus by the Omani Arabs in 1669, after a siege of thirty months.

The Nabahanis were finally deposed and their last leader, Sultan Ahmed bin Pamoluti, fled to the mainland (Lamu) about 1840 A.D. He established himself in Witu and later received German protection against Zanzibar. Prom Witu Sultan Pamuloti organized regular raids on the mainland plantations of the Lamu Archipelago. He died in 1888.

37. Shanga Ruins

Also notable among the relics of virtu at Pate are the 8th Century Shanga Ruins named after the Washanga, or the people of Shanga, a clan who still live in the nearby Swahili town of Siyu. Located at the southeast area of Pate Island, south of Siyu, Shanga contains coral walls, two palaces, three mosques and a cemetery outside the wall with hundreds of tombs. All in all, the site is thought to contain the ruins or foundations of about 130 houses and 300 tombs, well hidden by the overgrown shrubbery.  It was excavated over eight years, starting in 1980. The earliest settlement was dated to the 8th century, and the conclusion drawn from the evidence (locally minted coins and burial sites) indicate that a small number of local inhabitants were Muslim, probably from the late 8th Century onwards, and at least from the early 9th Century. The excavations also reveal a key break in the development of Shanga in the mid-late 11th Century, with the destruction and rebuilding of the Friday Mosque. Due to over abstraction of ground water, sea water seeped in and the village was no longer habitable. A rarely roved site, Shanga Ruins are one of the oldest recorded along the Coast of Kenya. So much so, that it was a thriving trading post 400 years before Mombasa was founded, and was also thriving 100 years prior to Lamu’s accent as a major hub. Dating of Shanga Ruins was based on quantities of ceramic artefacts collected in 1980s.

Spatial Location of Shanga Ruins on Pate Island
Spatial Location of Shanga Ruins on Pate Island

38. Siyu Fort

This is found about 5 kms east of Pate Town, 9 kms east of Faza and just north of Shanga. The small settlement of Siyu is widely-known for the remains of Siyu Fort; an antique mid-19th Century fort. Oral traditions suggest that it was built by Siyu’s prominent leader Mohammed Ishaq bin Mbarak (or Bwana Mataka) “who also rebuilt much of the town including a fine stone mansion for himself, of which the remains are still to be seen”. Within the Fort is a Friday Mosque with an elegant minbar or lectern dated to about 1521 AD. Siyu is also famous for fine skills in furniture-making and leather-crafting. As this may suggest, Siyu’s prosperity continued much longer than that of Pate, and unlike many other ecclesiastical relic forts at Lamu, Siyu Fort is unique because it was built to protect the town from the advancing Omani Arabs domination. Siyu is the only town which built a fort of its own, unlike Mombasa and Lamu where the forts were put up by foreigners. One of the endearing features of Siyu Fort, on one of the towers, is a carronade still in its original position and still with remains of its wooden carriage around it. Siyu Fort was gazetted as a National Monument in 1958. It’s reached either by boat up Takwa creek and then by foot to Siyu, or by rounding Manda Island by boat to Shanga and a short walk north.

Goma la Siyu (by male performers from Siyu) at Lamu Cultural Festival 2015

39. Atu Ruins

Atu Ruins are situated about half way between Siyu and Chundwa, but off the main trail to the east, almost at the edge (within about 100 metres) of the high water and mangrove line. At Atu are a mosque and an interesting grouping of tombs. The mosque had two rows of two piers, creating three aisles, with the ablution chamber to the south. The mihrab is curiously recessed into the walls, ana the apse is squared; next to the mihrab was a stepped masonry minbar. The musalla was entered through a single doorway in the east wall, or through the southern room; the western wall has fallen. About 150 metres or less south of the mosque are the tombs, labelled from the easternmost, set within thick bush.

40. Chundwa Ruins

The little-known Chundwa (or Tundwa) Mosque is located a little way out of the village on the Faza trail. It’s intriguing for its 18 shallow and narrow arch orders and recesses of over 50 bowls in the north wall. In the town is Chunawa pillar, a round tapering column about four metres high – A bench or base at the bottom has a diameter of 1.7 metres, while the base of the main body of the pillar is 1.1 metre across. Three masonry shafts with open spaces between them hold the top section above the body of the pillar, and on top is a conical finial. Just at the edge of the town along Faza trail, is a cemetery with step end tombs, some with long east facades. East of town on the Kizingitini trail are a mosque and tombs.

41. Faza Village

Originally known as Ampaza, at the northeastern corner of Pate Island, the 14th Century settlement of Faza has a deep-rooted history of tragedy and loss. More importantly, it also has a history of rebuilding itself from the blink of extinction, time and time again. Faza entered written history with its support of the Turk Mirale Ali Bey in 1586, for which action the town was destroyed by Portuguese the following year. Faza subsequently became an ally of the Portuguese, in an alliance mainly directed against Pate. In the 19th Century it served as a base of operations of the Zanzibaris against Siyu. There were a Portuguese chapel and a fort at Faza, but their remains are not known. The Swahili ruins include three mosques, some tombs, and the musalla of the Mosque of Shala Fatani. South of Shala Fatani Mosque is a second mosque, broken down, which used to have southern ablution facilities. North of this ruin is a cemetery, and east of this is another fine ruined mosque. Faza Village lies about 15 kms west of Pate Town. If the object of the journey is to tour Faza it is served by a working jetty. Due to its remoteness, the landscape around Faza has changed little over the decades. It is composed almost entirely of Bajuni-styled makuti (grass-thatched) houses.

42. Monuments in Lamu

Apart from the ruins on Manda, Pate and Lamu Islands, Lamu County has in total almost 45-historic monuments; varying from tombs, battlefields, ancient towns and mosques from past kingdoms dating back in some cases to as the 8th Century. Some of the little-known historic sites in Lamu County include Dondo, Ugwana, Agin, Mambore, Kimbo, Uziwaa, Mukunumbi, Witu, Mwana, Manda, Tosi, Jongeni, Ishakani, Rubu, Kiunga, Stesheni, Shaka, and Mea; among more.

43. Mangrove Forests

Mangrove Forests, locally known as “Nyangwa”, are one of Lamu’s dominant ecosystem. The mangrove forests, which march along the 131 kms coastline of Lamu County, are the most important source for timber and wood fuel. The largest patch, spanning from Kiunga Marine National Reserve to Manda Island, cover about 40,000-hectares (400 km2) and which accounts for 70% of Kenya’s mangroves. Ecologically, these are havens for motley birds and rare marine-life.

44. Dodori National Reserve

Located north of Lamu Island and contiguous with the Boni National Reserve, the wild and remote Dodori National Reserve is inhabited by a hatful of plains game, three unique varieties of turtles, a multiplicity of migratory birdlife and even some elephants. Although Dodori National Reserve has abundant wildlife, the animals are rather shy because of the rarity of vehicles. The landscape of the 133 km2 Dodori National Reserve is predominated by the native canopy forest which forms a fragment of the great Northern Zanzibar to Inhambane Coastal Forest. Gazetted in 1976 as a national reserve, Dodori National Reserve remains underdeveloped lacking both easy access and accommodation. While this offers an interesting excursion into an unusual coastal flora, it is necessary to go fully equipped and with enough supplies to overcome the complete lack of resources.

45. Kiunga Marine National Reserve

The Kiunga Marine National Reserve, which can be reached from Kiwayu as can Dodori and Boni National Reserves, is a 270 km2 colourful underwater world. Kiunga stands at the head of a long chain of islands running parallel to the coast and making a sheltered navigable channel for about 112 kms. The park itself is comprised of a 60 kms coral reef which runs parallel to it, and close to 50 off shore islands. The greater part of these islands are uninhabited; but there are a number of settlements on the mainland along the coast. The islands, and the coastal strip facing them, represent the farthest northern frontier of the ‘Swahili Coast’. Kiunga Marine Reserve is best known as a safe-haven for populations of the endangered Dugong (also popular as the sea cow) and the bounteous coral reef, home to a multiplicity of fish species that include the wrase, barracuda and rock cod. Kiunga Marine National Reserve is located 48 kms northeast of Lamu.

Spatial Location of Kiunga Marine National Reserve in Lamu County
Spatial Location of Kiunga Marine National Reserve in Lamu County

46. Kiwayu Island

The phenomenal beach at Kiwayu Island where the Kiwayu Safari Lodge stands sentinel is arguably the least-travelled spectacular ocean retreats in Kenya. It is also perhaps the most private and splendacious beach in Kenya. Kiwayu Island, which once could only be reached by major dhow expeditions from Lamu Island is now in air contact with Manda Island Airport. There is a small private airstrip at Kiwayu Island that links to Manda island. Alternatively, it can be reached on a legendary 7-hours traditional dhow voyage or a 4-hours motorboat ride from Lamu and Shela. By and large, Kiwayu Island, part of Kiunga Marine National Reserve, is a narrowed-strip of beach surrounded by reef.  Goodly rolling dunes along the beach give way to thicker vegetation, stands of palms, tropical citrus and mango trees; while the low lying zone is covered in dense mangrove forests.

47. Ashuwei Ruins

On the mainland north of Kiwayu Island the first historic site is Ashuwei – a settlement just recently abandoned, probably in the 1960’s. The single mosque is broken down except for the north wall, which contained a very plain mihrab, perhaps simply a plain round arch, without apparent cut coral. East of the apse is a minbar of four steps. The second site is known as Mvindeni and Ras Uwani used to refer to the pillar tomb and town ruins at the north end of the little bay.

48. Boni Forest

“In spite of identifying themselves as Muslim, the Boni maintain sacred forest shrines to protect their spirit world. The destruction of the Boni Forest and the expropriation of their land pose a serious threat to Boni survival, as well as the loss of significant biological diversity. Numbering about 3,500, the Boni are one of the most marginalized indigenous cultures in Kenya, and they are threatened with losing their land, their livelihoods, their way of life, and perhaps their very lives” – Chonjo, Issue 11. Also known as Aweer, Boni live in the forested patch between Boni and Dodori National Reserves, and southwest of Dodori Reserve towards the tail end of Dodori Creek in what is known as the Boni-Lungi Forest. On a much grander scale, but more easily approached from Lamu, is the 1,339 km2 Boni National Reserve, located at the extreme southeast corner of Garissa County, in between Dodori National Reserve, in Lamu County, and Lag Badana Bushbush National Park, in Somalia. Established in 1976, as a dry season refuge for elephants and other wild animals, this way-out backwoods reserve, covering a vast area of indigenous coastal forest, has a sizable concentrations of valuable hardwoods, most of which are listed as very rare, vulnerable or endangered.  Its 680 km2 forest section is the only notable forest in Garissa County. Enclosed in this rarely visited forest are many ancient sacred and traditional groves used by the Bajuni, Somali and Boni Communities as well as a handful of historic sights.

49. Ishakani Ruins

The entrance to Kenya in the immediate vicinity of Somalia (and Ras Kamboni) is marked by two tombs with high pillars whose site may have once been a pre-Islamic market, possibly one of the emporia mentioned in the Periplus. It is also believed to be the legendary Shvpigwaya of African tradition, claimed by Kitab-ul-Zunuj to have been the dispersal point for a large number of African tribes during the 12th or 13th Centuries. 10 kms to the south of Ras Kamboni are the remains of the walled town of Ishakani, with a similar tomb. South of Ishakani is a large striking rectangular panelled tomb over 1.2 ms high covering an area of about 80 m2. Three of its walls are decorated with asymmetrical, apparently abstract motifs in low relief; that do not appear to be Islamic. 16 kms further south are the ruin of a mosque belonging to the site of a settlement on Kiunga Island, opposite where there is an old tomb with a pillar in a bad state of repair.

50. Festivals in Lamu

Everything about Lamu Island seems unique. Its natural beauty and laid back style attracts travellers eager to experience the mystique of the ancient dreamy island. And nowhere perhaps are its exotic ways better displayed that in its 10 annual festivals. The Festivals of Lamu are: Lamu Painters Festival (February), the Shela Hat Festival (February), Lamu Yoga Festival (March), Lamu Food Festival (April), Eid-Ur-Fitr (June), Lamu Cultural Festival (November), Lamu Fishing Festival (December), Lamu Triathlon (December), El-Maulid Festival (December) and New’s Years Dhow Race (January). They offer a lens to its awe.

View of Siyu Fort on Pate Island.  Photo Courtesy of the Maljis
View of Siyu Fort on Pate Island. Image Courtesy of the Maljis Resort

Geography of Lamu County

Lamu County’s 6273.1 km2 is composed of a coastal zone of islands, its creeks, bays, sand bars and mangrove swamps that are rich with marine resources. The islands consists of the Lamu-Kiunga Archipelago which incorporates a chain of about 50 small calcareous offshore islands and coral reefs extending 60 kms parallel and close to the coastline. Among these string of islands is Lamu Island that hosts Lamu Town. These shelter an extensive system of creeks, channels and mangrove forests and are significant biodiversity areas. Most of the islands are fully enclosed within the Kiunga Marine National Reserve. The mainland area consists of forested areas and grasslands that are habitat to diverse wildlife including birds and primates. Dodori National Reserve is set on the mainland in Kiunga area and is wholly in Lamu. Boni National Reserves is located along the northern border with Garissa with only a small strip stretching along the border. To the southern end of Lamu Country area sits the Witu Forest Reserve.

Land Use in Lamu County

Crop production in Lamu County is mainly undertaken on the main land, with main crops cultivated to include: maize, cassava, peas and green grams.  Cash crops cultivated include: cotton, cassava, coconut, mangoes, bananas, bixa and mangroves.  42% of households’ income is from cotton. Because of the sandy soil on the majority of the 50 islands, only limited large cultivation is possible e.g tobacco plantations in Pate and of coconuts, mangoes and bananas in Lamu.

Highlights in Lamu County

Tourism is a major economic activity in the County.  It enjoys unique advantage as a tourist destination influenced by its rich diversity of cultural identity, home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its fauna and flora. The three main islands of Lamu, Manda and Pate are a blend of deep blue channels, coral reef, wide sandy beaches and protected bays. There are three National Reserves and three private ranches which are home to diverse species of fauna.  Lamu has three tourist class hotels and 181 unclassified hotels with a total bed capacity of 1881. 

Population in Lamu County

Lamu County’s population as projected in 2012 stood at 112,551 people.  Lamu Town, which is its capital, is also the main urban centre.  Mpeketoni, which is rapidly developing, is the main market centre and has the potential to surpass Lamu Town. Lamu County is made up of cosmopolitan population composed of indigenous communities mainly of Swahilis, Arabs, Korei, Boni, and the Ormas.

View of small islands near Kiyau Island.  Photo Courtesy of Mike's Camp
View of small islands near Kiyau Island. Image Courtesy of Mike’s Camp

Airports in Lamu County

Lamu County has 13 airstrips: 11 public and 2 private. Manda is the main line of aerial communication, with 3 major airline companies providing routine daily flights. The rest of the airstrips are not very active, used by small charter planes.

Roads in Lamu County

Lamu County has a total road network of 688.6 kms, with only 6 kms being tarmacked, making travelling by road troublesome especially during the rainy season. The two main roads are the C112 Mokowe-Garsen Road connecting to the rest of the coast counties and Mokowe-Kiunga Road connecting to Somalia.

Climate in Lamu County

Lamu County enjoys two rainy seasons and temperatures range between 23 to 32 degrees Celsius year round. Lamu lies along the Equatorial Climate Systems where the weather is typified by two monsoon winds and warm climate. The mean annual evaporation is high at 2,327 mm per year and the temperatures ranges between 24°C and 30°C. Generally and over the last 30 years, there has been an increase in both the annual average rainfall and mean temperature in Lamu. Hottest months are December to April while the coldest are May to July.

Lamu County Distance Chart
Lamu County Distance Chart

View of Takwa Ruins.  Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor
View of the Takwa Ruins on Manda Island. Image Courtesy of Trip Advisor

National Monuments in Lamu County

  1. Pate Ruins
  2. Brooks Quarry Site
  3. Bwana Bakari Mosque
  4. Ishakani I
  5. Ishakani II
  6. Ishakani III
  7. Shanga
  8. Omwe
  9. Kiunga
  10. Lamu Fort
  11. Lamu Town
  12. Manda Ruins
  13. Mambore
  14. Siyu Fort
  15. Jamia ya Siyu
  16. Lango la Shee of Siyu
  17. Mwana
  18. Lamu Catchment Area
  19. Lamu Veterinary Office

Lamu County Map

Lamu County Map