While staying at Subira House in Lamu Old Town, Wendy Watta delves into traditional Swahili architecture and, faced with a slowly evolving island, muses that some places should perhaps be left untouched.
Photographs: Brian Siambi
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest continually inhabited town along the Kenyan coast, Lamu Old Town has retained its authentic Arabic architectural fabric as well as its social and cultural mores, making for a rich and authentic getaway. Women whisper by along the narrow alleyways in bui bui while men in simple kofia usher along donkeys (aka the local Ferrari) laden with everything from heaps of maize flour packets to construction bricks, as stray cats slink nonchalantly through the labyrinthine maze of streets. Following the stories I heard about the black cats in Mombasa as a child, how people in Lamu don’t recoil in terror when they see these cats is beyond me.
This time we’re staying at Subira House which stands right behind Lamu Fort and is a key examples of Omani architecture of eras past. There are a few key structural differences with surrounding Swahili houses, including higher ceilings for self ventilation, the absence of zidaka niches and a more grandiose air about the space. The house is owned by Paul and Christina Aarts, an American and Swede respectively who first met and fell in love in this very town. They then bought, renovated and ran an abandoned hotel in rural Sweden for almost 10 years, before later returning to Lamu to show their two children where they met. They had no plans to stay. An architect showed them Subira House whose owner was living in Oman at the time but was slated to visit soon. A meeting was set and in two weeks, they had an agreement, initially intending for the house to be a vacation home. In fact, they went back and continued running their hotel in Sweden for years after that.
The house has been a passion project for this now elderly couple. They started restoring it, buying a lot of antiques and second hand items from local shops, finally deciding to make the move to the island in 2008. They have since extended the building which now has seven rooms spread across three spacious floors. It is a peaceful green heaven with plenty of potted plants in the open courtyard next to the ground floor dining area where we share all our meals with the owners as they regale us with stories of their time traveling in India. The food here is incredible and the restaurant has been known to draw people staying in other parts of the town, made even more so by the fact that the pair are into permaculture and have an organic farm where they grow a lot of the food whipped up by the chef.
They say that the house was initially built as a palace of sorts for an Omani Liwali who was posted to the island by the Sultan of Zanzibar. He actually wanted to marry a girl from a rich family but wasn’t allowed to initially because his nobility wasn’t good enough for them. He eventually got the girl. At the entrance of the house is a dome. To the right sits a 12m long room called a sebule, with six windows to the street and with six arches. This is where he would receive people coming to see him about their issues. There is a long baraza outside which is where they would sit as they waited their turn. Being eco-certified, the house itself doesn’t use any water closets and the loos at therefore dry/recyclable. All toilets in lamu have no drainage given the age of the houses. I am curious to find out more about architecture in this town, so Paul hires one of his go-to guides to show us around.
Being a muslim town, the best time to go on a walking tour is in the morning as the town generally comes to a close at 12:30pm. We kick off at the waterfront mosque, Msikiti wa Pwani, said to be almost 900 years old. It gets its name from a high wall which would keep away the water during high tide. The shoreline has since receded. The alleyways are narrow because when they houses were constructed, no one fathomed that there would one day be cars. In between the art galleries and stores like Natural Lamu (where I buy natural soaps and spices), it is the architecture of the houses and set up of the town that I find most fascinating.
Stone houses made in the 18th and 17th century are still intact. Some are made from dead coral and plastered with limestone. Most houses have wells for fresh water. Neighbours would join their higher balconies so they could visit each other without having to go downstairs, and for us, these “roofs” provide respite from the heat.
Each house has a front porch raised a little above the street level and lined with barazas where people could hang out with the house owner before going about their day. An intricately carved wooden door (there’s a woodwork section in town, in case you’re keen to see how they are made) opens to an inner porch overlooking a courtyard, if the family has space. For ventilation, parallel galleries regulate the breeze. There is no modern-day drainage system so bath water runs through narrow channels constructed into the side of each house, depositing into the sea. Some houses have a birika, a bath which is filled with water and looks like a little pond, complete with tiny fish said to ward off mosquitoes and keep the bath clean. Zidaka niches are outfitted with decorative porcelain plates and metallic incense holders. It is such a stark difference from Nairobi.
Our guide gets us some labaneer, a really sweet candy made with milk, sugar and cardamom, and as I tear off a piece out on the street, I can’t help but think about how much Lamu is changing (or how this sweet could give me diabetes). This thought continues to run through my mind when, back on the balcony of my room at Subira House, a delightful chorus of evening birds is interrupted by rap music blaring from a boda boda in the alleyway below. These motorbikes that whizz past on the narrow streets, jostling for space with pedestrians, so out of place in this ancient backdrop.
In a fast changing world where everything is moving towards modern technology and big hotels, perhaps we should leave Lamu untouched. It is a pearl to be polished and looked after, as it is its innocence that still continues to attract visitors in a shoreline with so many other splendid beaches.
I want to enjoy its present state while I still can. And so I sit on the rooftop of Subira House tucking into freshly baked bread with a delicious homemade jam whose recipe I’ve already slipped into my pocket, taking in the surrounding sea of houses and listening to the innocent song of nursery-age kids singing their ABC’s in a nearby class.
IN A FAST CHANGING WORLD WHERE EVERYTHING IS MOVING TOWARDS MODERN TECHNOLOGY AND BIG HOTELS, PERHAPS WE SHOULD LEAVE LAMU UNTOUCHED. IT IS A PEARL TO BE POLISHED AND LOOKED AFTER, AS IT IS ITS INNOCENCE THAT STILL CONTINUES TO ATTRACT VISITORS IN A SHORELINE WITH SO MANY OTHER SPLENDID BEACHES.