Swahili House Museum: Glimpse of 18-century architecture and home setupWednesday August 31 2022
Few places in Kenya slow down the pace of life and time as effectively as Lamu, a historic Swahili trading outpost, does.
The archipelago stands out as the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa and is also a Unesco world heritage town.
A tour of the Lamu will be incomplete without visiting the renowned Swahili House Museum that is situated in Mkomani, the centre of Lamu Old Town.
The over 300 years old structure allows visitors to have a glimpse of the traditional 18th-century Swahili house architecture and home setup.
National Museums of Kenya (NMK) curator in charge of Lamu Museums and World Heritage site, Mohammed Mwenje explains that the building was once a merchant house but the owner abandoned it.
The NMK took over ownership in the 1970s In the 1980s, it underwent major restoration works.
The Swahili House Museum's architeture follows a universal, centuries-old plan with thick external walls of between 60 centimetres to one metre thickness.
It has a high ceiling and small windows to protect its inhabitants from the sun and ensure that the interiors are cool, and offer privacy.
Among the features which are typical of a Swahili house is the daka, the porch of the house projecting from the courtyard. The daka is raised above the street level and lined with stone seats.
A carved wooden door opens directly onto tekani, an inner porch overlooking the courtyard known as kiwanda in Swahili. Most of the daytime activities like laundry took place at the kiwanda.
“From the courtyard, several parallel galleries known as misana or msana in singular follow to the back of the room. The galleries are designed in such a way that they trap and channel the cool sea breeze which is essential in regulating the hot and humid climatic condition of this coastal town,” explains Mr Mwenje.
Another feature of a Swahili house is the msana wa tini, or the lower gallery which is the first of the house space. Its two ends, famously known as ngao, are used as bed spaces behind curtains hung on rails called miwandi.
From the msana wa tini one proceeds to the msana wa kati, considered the second of the house space. This is the central gallery or the parents’ bedroom. Mr Mwenje reiterates that msana wa kati is the most intimate area of the house suite with a private bathroom and toilet.
The wall of the central gallery is covered with decorative niches known as zidaka of varying proportions used for displaying porcelains, lamps, or any valuable item suited for display.
Zidaka was also used as storage for the Quran and other religious texts. There is another feature called nyumba kati, considered the third of the house space which is a small room connected with the toilet and bathroom used for childbirth and washing of bodies before burial.
Up the stairs to the roof, a simple wooden door leads to the kitchen area referred to as kidari cha meko. The house’s kitchen is in this area ensuring smoke, heat and smells never entered the living quarters.