What is the What of Lamu, Kenya

There were stories after stories.  I sat outside and listened to the man.  He was panting.  Sweat trickled down his black face, shimmering off the pools on his forehead.  He wore a sleeveless T-shirt and baggy shorts.  Both were dirty and unkempt and both stuck to his sticky skin.  Atop the head and woven into his hair was a basket of woolen fabric knitted into a hat.  It contained his dreadlocks; a local Rastafarian resembling Bob Marley in plump form.  But this man’s name was Kito.  He had come to visit his friend, a young Abdullah.  Abdullah was in prison, locked in the local cell on top a hill overlooking Lamu town.  And apparently, Abdullah was not looking well.

“Abdullah’s eyes are glossed over,” Kito explained.  “And puss is coming from the corners.  He says he wakes up every morning and cannot open the eyes because of crust.”

Pinkeye: conjunctivitis born as a viral disease from surrounding bacteria:  Conjunctiva of the eye inflames; belonging to the genus Arterivirus; highly contagious.

I asked Kito what the jail cell looked like.

“It’s small, no more then this deck.”  We were clustered outside the police station, in an area no larger then four feet by six.

“And there are three other prisoners with him.”

“What about beds?” Lily queried.

“No sista.  No beds.  No chairs.  No blankets.  No sinks.  No nothing, except one bucket.  They sleep on the concrete floor.  They sit on the concrete floor.  They eat off the concrete floor.  And they squat over this one bucket and shit into it.”  Kito paused for effect, dropping his head in abjection.  “And there’s no washing of hands or body.  No moving for the exercise.  He doesn’t have much longer, you know?  Nobody does in this place,” he concluded pointing inside the building.

Kito had been to jail… like myself.  For eight months Kito was locked up in England after living there for ten years.  He was married to an English woman.  They had a daughter together.  Then he was jailed and later deported back to the island of Lamu off the coast of northeastern Kenya.  He saw his daughter whenever his ex-partner decided to visit.  She was coming in one week.  It had already been over a year.

“So I treat my friends as my family.  They’re all I have in this place.  Abdullah is my brother, you know?  He is family.  And my brother will not live long in this jail, nobody can.  Maximum one year and then dead.  You get sick and you die.  Jail in Kenya is execution.  Abdullah is going to die and it was not his fault.”

Abdullah was a businessman in the tourist trade of Lamu.  He was a sailor and organized trips to take people to Manda Toto for snorkeling, as well as sunset sails through the mangroves on local dhow boats.  On one particular trip, a group canceled the night before.  Abdullah had already bought the supplies for the all-day sail.  The one remaining passenger was nowhere to be found and thus showed up the morning of the scheduled departure.  Abdullah explained the situation—they weren’t going.  Of course, the one remaining tourist wanted his money back.  But Abdullah did not have it.  It was in the groceries.  So the English tourist reported him to the police and the police came to arrest Abdullah.  He was locked up with bail set at 2000ksh, approximately $30USD.

That was seven days ago and to this day his family is too poor for that.  His friends have their families to care for.  2000ksh is a fortune in many parts of the world, in fact, in too many parts of the world.

Shortly, Solomon appeared.  This was the Chief of Police for the Department of Tourism on the Island of Lamu; the man the English had dealt with, the man who arrested poor Abdullah.  On this day, Lily and I arrived to report the incident that occurred the night before—robbed by an axe-wielding heroin addict who threatened my life and ran away with a $4000USD camera.  In retrospect, we would be deciding the fate of another local, a man like Abdullah and Kito and police chief Solomon.  But a man with a question mark on his soul of whether or not he was deserving of such a fate.  That was yet to be decided.

I stepped into Solomon’s office and stood behind a counter while he and three other large bald Kenyans maneuvered into the room.  Solomon was tall and lanky, skinny with a narrowing head and dark brown eyes.  “So please recount the story of last night,” he requested, “with as much detail as you can remember.”

And so I began.

Lily and I were each drinking a jug of juice—one sweet lime and one fresh coconut.  It was Monday.  Two days had passed since the mugging, one day since our report to the police.  We were at Bush Gardens along the waterfront of Lamu town, observing an old Swahili culture beat under the heat.  The sun was high.  Sweaty bodies pushed donkeys, men rode them like over-sized children, and others hauled empty oil drums in trembling carts while most stood at the jetty staring.  Their clothes were faded from the sun and the lifestyle of fisherman and sailors.

It is a separate experience ambling along the waterfront of Lamu town.  While walking along the boardwalk, a tourist’s amble quickly turns into something akin to a trot as hawkers and touters goad for your attention:

“Nice pants brotha!”

“Hey sista!”

“Where you go?  To Shela?  I take you there?”

“Jambo nice couple, you want to snorkel?  Or maybe an evening mangrove sail?  The sunset, you know?”

They hawk and then they wait.  And then they stalk, these local fishermen and sailors of the tourist trade.  We are their sole income.  We must help.

After recounting the incident to Solomon and his police chiefs, we were led into further information.  Lamu is a tourist economy.  When economy is up, the culture thrives.  When it is down, it suffers.

Since the outbreak of violence after Kenya’s 2007 election, the entire country’s economy has suffered.  Few travelers care to explore the culture.  Now three years later, things are looking brighter.  Yet people are still desperate.

“There is a problem,” one man began telling me.  He was a boat driver and gave us a ride from Shela to Lamu town.  After we told him about the mugging, he gave us his sentiments and shared the deeper side of Lamu.  “People inland have drug and alcohol problems.  Many many use heroin.  And many drink.  Inland is where they have problems, and at night they come out to the beaches to do what they did to you.”

“So it happens often?” Lily asked.

“Yes, but it is better now.”  We paused as the motor droned and the sea breezes cooled our skin.  “But heroin is bad.  Alcohol is bad.  We don’t do that.  I’m a native and our people of Lamu are not happy with this.  My father told me it is okay to smoke the marijuana.  You can think.  You can work.  You can live a good life.  He said, ‘Smoke marijuana if you want, but stay away from everything else.’

“So brotha,” our captain said looking at me.  “Smoke the marijuana and be happy.”

Solomon had said the same… about the increase of violence:  “Last week two German ladies were robbed.  Same place.  Same time.  The man came from the bush onto the beach and pulled out a knife.  He took their cameras and their mobile phones and some money.  But we caught him and he is here in the cell.  So I think we have a good chance with this one.”

We spread the word.  We told our friend Habeeb at the General Store.  We told the boat captains and the hawkers and asked for their help.  We told other tourists and travelers to be weary—cautious—to have eyes in the back of their heads.  We told them to be smart.  And what everyone told us was this:

Don’t walk at night!

Lily and I had let our guard down.  We believed we were in paradise, a land of imagination, one fueled by emotions.  And we walked the beach at night under a cloudless sky littered with flittering debris of stardust and spacious chatter.  We paid the price because we were on a continent called Africa.  We were on a planet called Mother Earth where humanity suffers and resorts to violence against fellow brothers and sisters.  In retrospect, it made no difference where we were.  It could have been Mexico or Hawaii or New York.  The man with the axe, strung out on heroin, walked away with my camera loaded with a full memory card.  We walked away with our lives.  Consider us lucky.

Throughout the remaining week, I checked in with Solomon.  He wrote up an official report for insurance purposes and relayed any information.  “We have leads the camera is in Mombassa.”


“Yes,” Solomon nodded.  “We think he has left the island and is in Mombassa to sell the camera.  It will be difficult now, but we will keep trying.”

I told Kito about the news and he shrugged.  “I’m sorry we could not help you more, but these things are hard and too often.  This island is beautiful, but it is as normal as Nairobi.  You know, we have more serious issues.  The jail here, where Abdullah is, is full of guns, bombs and weapons.  If one thing happens, this town will go up.”

“What do you mean?  Why?”

“Why the guns?”

“Yeah, why is the jail full of them?”

“Last month,” Kito began, “there was a small fishing boat off the shore.  They were two fishermen from Lamu and it was night.  Suddenly, they saw a flare go off from another boat, so they motored to it and found a group of men.  The group needed help so the two fishermen rode up.  All of a sudden there were guns on them everywhere.  The other boat was full of Somali pirates.”

As the crow flies, the island of Lamu is approximately 70 kilometers south of Somalia.  It’s in the hotspot.  The island is a dichotomy of beauty versus evil.  It is pristine, yet chaotic.

Kito continued.  “There is a US Navy base somewhere here.  It’s hidden.  Nobody knows where.  When the fishermen were able to make a SMS call from their mobile, Kenyan police and US Navy swarmed the area and captured the pirates…all eleven of them.  And now their guns are here, and others from earlier times.”

Pirates, drugs, violence and paradise.  It all seemed to fit the adventurous package in which we were seeking.  I realized Lamu was like any other place, with the good and the bad.  While Lily and I were there, with the experiences we had, we offered our good energies to help the good, promote the positive.  Abdullah needed help, so we approached Kito.

“We’d like to help Abdullah.  How can we help?”

Kito smiled broadly.  “He needs to get out of there now.  He is sick and slowly dieing.  We need 2000ksh to bring him home and then he needs medicine to heal.”

Lily and I looked into Kito’s eyes and then we analyzed the situation.  We felt from our hearts and allowed our decisions to be lead from this place.  Then we handed over 2500ksh, some to get Abdullah out of jail and some for his medicines.

Kito’s face lit up.  His eyes became grateful.  And then he disappeared, heading up the hill to the police station.

Stories of life filled our conscience.  It flowered our appreciation for life and nurtured our understanding about the diversities of humanity.  We saw the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.  We shook Abdullah’s hand and felt his happiness.  We promoted our brothers Vasco de Gama and Omar with a snorkeling trip to Manda Toto.  Then days later we left Lamu with its lessons.  We bused back to Nairobi via Mombassa into the palace of Alison, and then onward over land and sea to the place from which we came.  We were safe.  We were sound.  We were richer with life, culture and understanding.  And then we slept, waiting for Africa to return.