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Victoria Schofield
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India
 

Longing for Lamu,

The Traveller, Summer 2009 Edition

Excerpt:

No one lives on Manda Toto – or little Manda – it is just a small island, with a white sandy beach, next door to Manda one of the three main islands of the Lamu archipelago on the north Kenyan coast. But if you want to go to the coral reef that is the place to visit.  The time-honoured way to travel  from Lamu  Island, where we were staying, was to sail   in a dhow, just like the Arabs, when they discovered this labyrinth of idyllic islands several centuries ago. These sturdy boats, made from the mangroves which grow on the water’s edge are still the most favoured form of water transportation.  At night when they are anchored in the bay, their one sail furled, they have a ghostly appearance, as they move, unmanned, to the rhythm of the tide.

For our excursion to the coral reef we had to start early. Abdul, boatman of the dhow ‘Felice’ had already come to meet us the night before. Did we have snorkels? No, well then he would provide them.  And a picnic?  Abdul would provide the picnic. We could bring our own cold drinks – no alcohol, of course. Lamu islanders are devout Muslims and we had already heard the story of a   boatman being cursed   because he had transported alcohol in his boat. We had also been  advised that, in a society where many Lamu women are veiled, it was offensive to wander around the town in a bathing suit. 
 
The following day we met Abdul at the quayside. The Felice was moored proudly, awaiting our arrival. Once on board, the sail was unfurled, and we settled down to listen to the sound of water against the boat, as we ploughed through the clear blue sea, framed by an azure sky. We soon left behind us the village of Shela, with its white stone houses, tailored to fit the available space between the sand dunes and the sea. We also passed Lamu town, which, like Shela, has been built on a  slope so that when it rains, the water washes the town clean into the sea. With its narrow streets, garnished by cascading bougainvillea,  Lamu prides itself on having only one car (the District Commissioner’s land rover) although, as we discovered, this rule has been relaxed and a tractor rumbles around collecting rubbish and there are also two ambulance ‘pick up’ trucks. Mostly, the islanders are dependant on thousands of donkeys who can be heard braying in the early hours of the morning. As an important beast of often heavy burdens (and annual participants in a donkey race) donkeys are surprisingly well cared for. Every year the vet from the Donkey Sanctuary, a registered charity in Devon, comes to check on them. 
 
As we rocked gently onwards to Manda Toto,  only once did modernity sweep past us in the shape of a speed boat, whose   time to the coral reef would have been   half what we were going to take. Many speed boats? I asked Abdul. ‘A few,’ he replied. More of course than before and more, I realised, than the traditional boatman would like. ... 

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