The Birth of Swahili - Lamu
Narrow stone alleyways, petrified coral walls, curved archways, thatched roofs, burqa-clad women, donkey-style transportation and a captivating harbor, Lamu is more then a town, it is Swahili culture at its finest!
Said to be the birthplace of Swahili, Lamu grew up like many other Africa port towns - gaining fame through international trade routes. Located on the northern coast of Kenya, just south of Somalia, Lamu’s strategic position between the Arabian, Persian and Indian worlds allowed an endless stream of spices, silks, and precious metals to be traded with Africa. Wanting a piece of the spicy pie, Portugal invaded in the 15th century and quickly gained control of the trade route. Exploiting the local people and monopolizing on the once successful seaport, Portugal brought about the demise of this once affluent city-state. Trade ground to a halt, the beautiful city walls crumbled, and people lived in unfamiliar poverty. It wasn’t until 1652, when the Sultan of the Omanian Empire was swayed by the potential trade wealth, to overthrow the Portugese and rebuild the once thriving seaport.
The Omanian Empire wasted no time in restoring Lamu to its once flourishing state. Crumbly buildings were reconstructed with local materials, such as coral, lime and mangrove timber, while stone slabs paved the way for the labyrinth-style streets – an urban planning design customary to Arabic culture. Mosques and compound-style Islamic homes were also built but the pride of Lamu was the seaport. Buildings constructed of the finest coral and stone, archways and doors adorned in layers of Islamic etchings and large, uniform verandas offering a warm embrace to tired seamen.
It was during these times that Swahili culture was born. With so many varying languages, religions, and traditions, their came a need for a few strands of commonality. The Swahili language, mainly a mix of Arab and Portugese, aided tremendously in trade and the children born of these intermarriages now had an ethnicity to identify with. As for religion, Swahili encouraged Islam under the Omanian reign, but still reflects Christians, Jains, and even tribal gods of the early years.
Swahili became synonymous with the coast of Africa and no matter who invaded, or who took control, the people would always have something to call their own.
Luckily, only one more change of hands lay in their future. In 1890, after years of affluence built on the thriving slave market, the Omanians were forced to leave Lamu under the British East Africa Protectorate. As with the Portugese, Lamu declined rapidly under European rule, especially after the abolition of slavery, terminating Lamu’s main form of income.
Finally, in 1968, the British left Kenya for good! Leaving Lamu to what it is today - a living relic of days past whose people adhere to tradition and keep Swahili alive.