House of Habib Swaleh: A century-old mud house attracts visitors in droves


The Habib Swaleh House in Lamu Old Town has been in existence for over 120 years. It attracts about 10,000 tourists a year. PHOTO | KALUME KAZUNGU | POOL

The Lamu archipelago has a diversity of historical structures, which date back centuries. They have a rich reservoir of unique and well-preserved culture and heritage.

Apart from the renowned Lamu Fort at the heart of the Old Town, which carries more than 200 years of history, there is another key structure — the Habib Swaleh House.

The Business Daily sought to unearth why the famed House of Habib Swaleh is famous and what attracts tourists to the site.

The Habib Swaleh House is a mud-walled structure with corrugated iron sheet roofing in the compound of Riyadha Mosque in Lamu.

The house might not be impressive but it has a rich history dating back more than 120 years.

It was once home to one of East and Central Africa’s most revered Islamic scholars. The house was built by Habib Swaleh also known as Salih bin Alawi Jamal al-Layl who died in 1935 aged 83.

Mr Swaleh, an iconic individual, had family connections with the Hadhramaut in Yemen. He was born in 1852 in Singani in the Comoro Islands and grew up in an environment in which religion and academics were highly valued.

His father initiated him into studying the Koran at a very tender age.

As a teenager, he and the famous Zanzibari scholar Sayyid Abubakar bin Ahmad bin Smeit were put under the tutelage of the great Comorian scholar Sayyid Muhammad bin Abdullah, alias Mwenye Ba Hassan.

Mr Swaleh came to Lamu in 1870, aged 18 to visit his uncle, Sayyid Ali bin Abdullah Whad and seek medication for an illness that had affected his legs.

While in Lamu, he studied under the island’s top scholars including his uncle. During his stay, he became a highly-respected religious teacher and many students sought him out.

The House of Habib Swaleh and its contents bear testimony to the simple life of a pious man who became one of the most significant Islamic scholars of his time, and whose legacy lives on through the institutions and traditions he established.

One such institution is the Lamu Riyadha Mosque, built in 1892. It has been hailed as a landmark historical site because of its role in spreading Islam in the region.

The mosque, which began as a madrassa, is today one of the most prestigious and influential Islamic teaching institutions in the Swahili World, and is fondly referred to as “little Mecca”.

Today, however, the dilapidated House of Habib Swaleh, which measures 12 by nine metres, remains an important feature.

For many Muslim faithful and tourists visiting Lamu, their itinerary is always not complete without a visit to this house. More than 10,000 tourists visit the House of Habib Swaleh annually.

“The House of Habib Swaleh is a key tourist attraction site. As Riyadha Mosque and Islamic Centre, we’re proud to have the structure within the Riyadha Mosque Compound. We receive between 20 to 30 people almost every day visiting the House of Habib Swaleh,” said Riyadha Mosque and Islamic Centre secretary-general Abubakar Badawy.

It inspires many and is a source of reference for scholars and researchers. The House of Habib Swaleh is one of the most important attractions during religious festivals in Lamu such as Maulid.

It is the only time the unique structure is open to the public.

Among the features found in the house of Habib Swaleh are Sebule — the lounge — located in the centre. This was a dedicated space where the scholar used to receive guests and spend some quality time.

There is also the Ukumbini (corridor) section. Visitors here can spot fingerprints of Habib Swaleh inscribed on one side of the mud walls of the house.

National Museums of Kenya curator in charge of Lamu Museums and World Heritage site Mohammed Mwenje says: “The presence of the Habib Swaleh building in the archipelago is crucial. This particular structure holds an important place in the history of Lamu Old Town.”

In the bedroom, the bedding used by the scholar is still preserved. Inside the house is also a consultation or medical room Swaleh used to treat various ailments and a bathroom.

It is here that you will see bottles and other gadgets that were used by the scholar to attend to patients during his heyday.

The house also has a backyard (Uani) where the scholar used to conduct prayers, Quran lectures, and relax.

Generally, the House of Habib Swaleh has preserved all the scholar’s artefacts and manuscripts and that is why the structure was recognized by the (NMK) as a National Monument owing to its cultural values.

In 2018, the government, through NMK also declared the Riyadha Mosque a National Monument under the National Museums and Heritage Act.

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