Lamu Island is a part of the Lamu Archipelago of Kenya. Lamu Old Town, the principal inhabited part of the island, is one of the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlements in East Africa. Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is characterized by the simplicity of structural forms enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors. Lamu has hosted major Muslim religious festivals since the 19th century, and has become a significant center for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures.
The island is linked by boat to Mokowe on the mainland and to Manda Island, where there is an airport. There are no roads on the island, just alleyways and footpaths, and therefore, there are few motorized vehicles on the island. Residents move about on foot or by boat, and donkeys are used to transport goods and materials.
A port was founded on the island of Lamu by Arab traders at least as early as the fourteenth century, when the Pwani Mosque was built. The island prospered on the slave trade. After defeating Pate Island in the nineteenth century, the island became a local power, but it declined after the British forced the closure of the slave markets in 1873. In 1890 the island became part of Zanzibar and remained obscure until Kenya was granted independence from Great Britain in 1963. Tourism developed from the 1970s, mainly around the eighteenth century Swahili architecture and traditional culture.
Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia have launched a controversial development project to build a port, oil refinery and rail network near the island of Lamu.
In addition to Lamu Town, there are three villages on Lamu Island:
Shela is a village about 2 miles from Lamu Town. The origin of the village is unknown, but according to tradition, it was settled by people from nearby Manda Island. In 1813, the elite of Pate Island, allied with the Mazrui clan from Oman, attempted to subjugate Lamu in the Battle of Shela. This attempt failed totally, and the defeat of Pate at Shela signalled the rise of Lamu as the leading power in the archipelago. Shela's golden age was from 1829 to 1857, when 5 of its 6 mosques were constructed. It is especially known for the Friday mosque.
Shela is now a centre for tourism on the island, with several guest houses featured by the coast. Shela is also home to the most spectacular beaches on Lamu island, which were damaged during the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The appearance of the area is much more in keeping with the imagined East African coastline, with its almost pure white sand, traditional dhows, and clean appearance. It makes a sharp contrast to Lamu town (directly opposite the airstrip on Manda) which lacks a beach and functions as a relatively busy port.
Known for the building and repairing of dhows, the whole village is surrounded by mangrove trees.
This is a small village on the SW coast of the island.
In popular culture
- Juma and the Magic Jinn, a United States children's picture book set on Lamu Island
- Kore people