Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Dhows and donkeys on the island built from coral

By Daisy Carrington and Aja Harris, for CNN
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Fri June 6, 2014
Lamu, the East African island perched placidly off of Kenya's southern coast, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited Swahili towns. Lamu, the East African island perched placidly off of Kenya's southern coast, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited Swahili towns.
HIDE CAPTION
Lamu's Swahili history
Lamu's Swahili history
Lamu's Swahili history
Lamu's Swahili history
Lamu's Swahili history
Lamu: A shrine to Swahili architecture
Lamu: A shrine to Swahili architecture
Lamu: A shrine to Swahili architecture
Lamu: A shrine to Swahili architecture
Lamu: A shrine to Swahili architecture
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lamu is one of the oldest continuously inhabited Swahili towns
  • There are no cars on the island -- the streets are too narrow and winding
  • Instead, locals rely on donkeys for transport on the land, and dhows to travel throughout the archipelago

Every week, Inside Africa takes its viewers on a journey across Africa, exploring the true diversity and depth of different cultures, countries and regions.

Lamu, Kenya (CNN) -- In many ways, it seems like time has given Lamu a wide berth.

The East African island, perched placidly off Kenya's coast, is home to one of the oldest continuously inhabited Swahili towns -- an ethnic group in East Africa who have lived here for more than 700 years. There are no cars on the island -- the streets are too narrow and winding. Instead, locals rely on donkeys for transport on the land, and dhows to travel throughout the archipelago.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lamu was once the most important international trade center in East Africa -- as is evidenced by the Arab, Indian, Persian and European influences in the local architecture. The most Swahili feature, however, is the use of coral stone, which reigns supreme throughout the island. Not only is coral stone strong, it's a few degrees cooler than cement, making it an ideal building resource in a region known for its sweltering heat.

In fact, coral stone has a long history in the construction of Lamu, as is evidenced by the Takwa ruins -- the remains of what was once a thriving trading town. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Takwa attracted merchants from across the globe.

"The Arabs were here, the Indians were here, the Chinese," says local historian Mohamed Ali.

"The Swahili people used to trade with a lot of foreign people."

Much like Lamu's more modern buildings, the relics of this ancient commercial hub are mainly made from coral stone and lime -- though foreign influences abound.

Can sand transform lives?

"The Indians introduced arches and balconies," notes Ali.

Foreigners -- lured by the charming architecture and relaxed way of life -- continue to flock to Lamu town, with many buying and renovating the old Swahili mansions, or simply building new ones. As a result, locals often find themselves outbid when buying property. Local artisan Swabry Maawy, for instance, recalls the difficulty he had in procuring his dream house.

"I was so in love with this house. I put in an offer and people from Europe put their offer. I put in another offer, they put in another offer, and somehow I got it. It was very expensive for me," he says.

He hopes to preserve the past with the building, especially as he sees more foreigners investing in Lamu's future, a new twist on its historic role as a hub for international trade.



Gallery: Africa's most exciting architects

Read: Mysterious 900-year-old stone kingdom

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:57 AM EST, Thu November 6, 2014
Vintage helicopters, ziplines, private flying safaris offer new, spectacular views of wildlife and rugged terrain.
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Photojournalist Daniella Zalcman asked Uganda's religious leaders their views on homosexuality. Their answers might surprise you.
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
In Africa, royalty is an endangered species. Meet the man on a mission to photograph the last remaining kings and queens.
updated 6:35 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Getty photographer John Moore captured the spirit of those who survived the epidemic
updated 1:26 PM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Nazis, bomb raids, and a mysterious man with a mustache. The search for the spinosaurus reads like a spy novel.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Can a rat be a hero? It can if it saves lives. Meet the giant rats that sniff out landmines and TB
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
In Africa, royalty is an endangered species. Meet the man on a mission to photograph the last remaining kings and queens.
updated 7:10 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Can state-of-the art schools in rural Africa rescue the environment? One charity is betting on it.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
To save the rhinos, one charity is moving them out of South Africa, where poaching is at an all time high.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
mediterranean monk seal
Many of Africa's animals are facing extinction. Is it too late for them? Our interactive looks at the many challenges to survival.
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
No one knows what causes "fairy circles" in Namibia's desert. A new study, however, may have solved the mystery.
updated 6:54 AM EDT, Thu April 3, 2014
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The 'African Alps' are melting, and it may be too late. Now may be your last chance to see the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
updated 10:38 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
One company thinks so. They're investing in insect farms in Ghana and Kenya. Could bugs build an industry and curb malnutrition?
updated 6:20 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
updated 5:27 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
updated 6:16 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Makoko Floating School
A new wave of African architects are creating remarkable buildings in the continent, and beyond.
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT