Lamu ‘tombs of identity’ with rich history in the archipelago

The Ishakani tombs. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The Lamu Archipelago has historical ingredients that have for decades continued to attract tourists, guests, and other revellers to familiarize themselves with such unique sites.

Lamu is known for having centuries-old historical buildings, and mosques. For instance, the famous Lamu Fort building has existed for more than 200 while Riyadha Mosque and the Habib Swaleh House are more than 120 years old.

Places of worship, such as the Pwani and Siyu Mosques, have existed for between 300 and 700 years.

Apart from such sites, Lamu also boasts of having historical tombs, also known as the ‘Tombs of Identity.’

According to the National Museums of Kenya, most of the historical tombs across the Lamu archipelago have existed for 200 and 400 years, making them icons of Lamu as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Most of these sites are gazetted national monuments.

Such tombs of identity include the more than 200-year-old Mwenye Mui Zahid Mngumi in Langoni and Mwana Hadie Famau, which has existed for between 300 and 400 years in Mkomani.

Religious beliefs

Ngumi, who was the Lamu Old Town patron, is renowned for building the Lamu Fort between 1813 and 1821 while Famau is referred to as the ‘Saint of Lamu’ due to the strong religious beliefs she portrayed during her lifetime on the island.

Another monumental tomb in the archipelago is the 14th Century Pillar Tomb in Gadeni at the Lamu Old Town. Others are found in Takwa, Shanga, Pate and Siyu.

National Museums of Kenya curator in charge of Lamu Museums and World Heritage sites, Mohammed Mwenje, told the Business Daily yesterday that the tombs are all tied to the island’s history and image, having been around for between 200 and 400 years.

“Lamu is proud of having important historical tombs that are key tourist attractions in this place.

“The National Museums of Kenya is doing all it can to ensure such sites that have historical significance in Lamu are preserved,” said he said.

The curator, however, cited some challenges threatening the existence of most of the historical sites and monuments in Lamu.

Mr Mwenje said despite having secured title deeds for some of the lands where the historical tombs are situated, some community members still encroach on those sites, which he said was making conservation and preservation efforts of the historical ruins difficult.

Ancestral lands

In Pate Island, for instance, it has become hard for the National Museums of Kenya to eject the encroachers from the sites because many claim that the ruins are part of their ancestral lands.

“We have tried to keep the encroachers at bay by fencing some of the lands where these historical tombs and sites are located. Some community members still squeeze themselves into these lands. This needs to stop,” said Mr Mwenje.

The National Museums of Kenya curator also cited another major challenge of waste disposal by community members at the historical tombs and other sites in Lamu.

“We are appealing to the community to help us preserve, protect and maintain the cleanliness of these sites and monuments.

“Some people have turned them, especially the historical tombs into waste disposal points. This has raised the entire cost of preservation of the sites by the National Museums of Kenya,” said Mr Mwenje.

Treasure hunters

He also cited the theft of some of the historical items as another challenge faced by the museum agency.

“Some of the ancient graves of prominent people were decorated using porcelain, which is precious. We’ve scenarios where locals tamper with these decorations where they take the porcelain and sell it to treasure hunters,” he said.

Lamu is home to hundreds of sites and monuments some of which are not even reachable due to their remote location.

Of all the 47 counties, Lamu has the highest number of historical monuments and buildings.

Today, Lamu Old Town stands as the oldest surviving town in East Africa with more than 700 years of continuous human habitation.

It also remains the only Swahili settlement to retain its original character since its inception.

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