Since time immemorial, the Lamu archipelago has been defined by special old modes of transport that have stood the test of time.
Founded in 1370, Lamu Old Town is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the country. Interestingly, the town has defied changes in the means of transport, largely remaining the same over the centuries.
Moving around the town, you get the feeling that it is a place caught in a time warp. You also realise that the design of the town is such that it was meant to shake off all forms of advances in modes of transport and remains rooted to its old ways. No vehicle, even saloon cars, can fit into the narrow streets of the island town.
When the structure of the town has come under threat of being demolished to pave way for new modern planning, the law has stood firm against such intentions; the law forbids anyone from pulling down the town’s structures to create room for motorised transport and other forms of modern infrastructure.
It is such unique historical features that have catapulted Lamu Old Town to the global glare, having been listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. The town made it to the list as a way of preserving one of the oldest cultures in the world.
Without motorised transport, one wonders how people move around and goods ferried. Here you find donkeys, in fact many of them. Then there are dhow boats, handcarts and people walking on foot. Not even bicycles, let alone motorbikes and vehicles, are allowed in the town.
Beast of burden
While the rest of Kenya shops and packs their goods into vehicles or motorcycles, Lamu Old Town residents board donkeys or carts for their daily commute.
In Lamu, the donkey, also known as the beast of burden, is not just a part of almost every household, but forms a major segment of the town’s enduring heritage. The culture of Lamu is incomplete without the donkey’s narrative. The story of the donkey is inseparable from the economic and social struggles of Lamu — the animal carries their owners, the sick, sacks of merchandise and even construction materials.
Because of the amount of work they handle, donkeys are a prized possession in this part of the world. They are treasured and loved, such that having one is like owning a small car and pickup at the same time.
The animal is also a huge tourist attraction. Visitors flock the town from far and wide to come and witness the magical culture of the Swahili people, who have been able to maintain their shipping and logistics traditions even as technological headwinds rage all over the place, upending businesses in every sector.
When you visit the town, riding a donkey is a must-do leisure event. This is the best way to live the town’s piece of culture, albeit for a few moments.
“You can’t talk of Lamu without mentioning donkeys or the carts. We have no mechanised vehicles here and even if we manage to get them, they can’t be allowed to operate in our historical town,” said Mr Omar Kigede, a donkey operator.
“I can say donkeys and carts are the cornerstones of Lamu Old Town’s economy.”
The handcarts too occupy a pride of place on the streets of the town. It should be noted that this mode of transport has been in use throughout history, almost as far back as the invention of the wheel.
Then there is the dhow boat that dominates transport from one island to another in the Lamu archipelago which is made up of more than 35 islands. These include the Lamu Old Town, Shella, Manda, Ras Kitau, Matondoni, Kipungani, Siyu, Pate, Faza, Kizingitini, Ndau, Mkokoni, Kiwayu and Kiunga. All these islands are located hundreds of kilometres away from each other.
Once you alight from a boat in those respective islands, the options you have are either the ubiquitous donkeys or handcarts.
In the town, dhow boat touts and owners always stand in various designated zones, yelling for passengers. In true matatu culture, the owners have fancy names for their boats —Tusitiri, Shukrani, Asilia, Tupendane, Kipepepo, among other names.
Here is how a brief history of the boats goes in Lamu: It is said the first foreigners came to the islands in ancient sailing vessels from the Arabian Peninsula, China, Persia and India, expanding trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Dhow boats were then perfect for transporting heavy merchandise.
Strategically located along ancient trade routes between the Middle East and South Asia, Lamu Island was once the most important trade hub in the region with all shipping activities carried out using the dhow boats as the only means of transport.
Once they landed in Lamu, dhow boats seemed to find a permanent home, as they never left again.
Today, visitors coming to Lamu can still get a feel of the sailing dhows experience, either for a fishing trip or sunset cruise. They are primarily used by fishermen who sometimes sail through the night, navigating their way using the stars.
The invention of motorboats and speed boats has also boosted the general shipping activities in Lamu.
Until recently, boda boda operators were allowed to navigate through the narrow alleys of the Lamu Old Town. However, their high number was seen to pose a threat to the tranquility and serenity of the town.
This prompted the County Government of Lamu to ban them last August from accessing the town, pushing them to conduct their operations only on its outskirts.
Recently, the Trade and Tourism Department in Lamu revealed that the ban on boda boda in the historical town has improved the town’s planning as it seeks to keep its place as a world heritage site.
According to Lamu County Executive for Tourism Dismas Mwasambu, the ban has helped market the Old Town as the perfect tourist destination.
“The ban has made it easy to better improve and conserve the heritage of the people of Lamu,” said Mr Mwasambu.