Day 4 Friends from the Past
Apart from dodging, some cockleshells, barnacles, broken glass, donkey shit, abandoned flip flops, and shells at low tide, the preferred mode of transport to Lamu is by boat—all be it a high powered one if so inclined. There were no power boats here in 1982, everything was done by sail and the mercurial winds of Manda Strait. There was a huge ocean-going jihazi dhow that was powered by a noisy, greasy diesel engine that took backpackers and other mzungus from the last bit of Kenyan mainland to Lamu.
My return trip here in 2000/2001 saw the first power boat which belonged to the Prince of Monaco. He used his power boat to jet over to the Manda Beach Resort to try and turn down the music from German Joe’s Disco and, if that did not succeed, punch out his lights, so to say.
For you maritime lovers and boatheads, the Mozambican dhow has now replaced the traditional dhow here and the locally-made fiberglass Chriscraft knockoffs are usurping those two boats with anything ranging from 15 hp up to twin 250 hp outboard motors.
Unless you are water skiing: I see no need for the speed unless you are outrunning Kenyan customs and involved in illicit mira or arms smuggling from Somalia.
Nevertheless, I boated over to Lamu in a fiberglass boat at a leisurely pace to run some errands. It was high tide and slightly treacherous underfoot to, and at times, one would have to crawl along the sea wall in an epic walk to Lamu, so I opted for the power boat. There was a strong tail wind as we powered along, but it felt like we were underwhelmed by our whopping 15 hp motor. The captain managed to hit every wake of faster, heavier power boats that clipped along and easily passed us. To avoid those brutes, we hugged the shore, so as to not to hit too many oncoming waves.
As we got nearer to town, the concrete walls gave way to a new paved corniche that now leads into the old town of Lamu. We passed by a few hawkers who were selling fruit, hard candies, tepid sodas and other sundry items they could cart around in the shade. We boated by the huge, yet now empty edifice and faded stencil of Lamu Ginners which to me sounded like a place where they made gin, but I think it is some godown for making cotton or something. The place looks as deserted as the last time I was here and was overgrown with umbrella acacia, scarlet bougainvillea bushes and a vacant coral rag building which looked like a haunted house backdrop.
Further along, a few deserted dhows had been haphazardly thrown up on the shore, perhaps being vulcanized for parts or utterly abandoned—a bit of a dhow graveyard. Other newer models were just moored here alongside the older forgotten battered ones.
Off to our right moored near the island, was what looked like a floating barge or prop from Kevin Costner’s colossal commercial movie bust—Waterworld. I yelled “SMOKERS”, but no one caught on to the movie dialogue-pity! I was told it was a floating barge alright, but belonging to some crazy Brit who decided to have a floating bar and liquor store in the strait between Manda Island and Lamutown. Seemed like a daft idea to me—you would need a boat, skiff or dhow to get to it, but perhaps the Brit did this with the intention of avoiding some liquour law or tax evasion scheme. Lamu, after all, was an Islamic town, but alcohol could still be had at a few watery establishments at a premium price mind you.
We eventually docked at the main pier and I awkwardly got off the boat and onto the barnacle ridden concrete steps and slowly made my way into town. Naturally I was approached by everyone and their brother—all touts.
‘Jambo, my name is Yahya and I am offering a historic tour of Lamu.’
‘Donkey ride, sunset dhow trip for you today?’
‘Please sir, do you have 250 bob (Kenyan shilling) as I am a fishermen and need to buy a needle and thread to fix my net.’ ‘The other day you couldn’t help, but today you can?
‘Jambo. Where are you going? Let me help you find the bank.’
I had been to Lamu probably before some of these touts were born. I think I still know my way around here—or at least that is what I thought.
After my bank business, I made my way along the busy main street just off the wide open corniche trying to avoid donkey carts, garbage men pushing a handcart and shouting at everyone to give way, past others hawking cheap Chinese electronic goods, popcorn, roasted groundnuts and cashews, donkey doo, touts with blackened teeth offering city tours and other personal services.
At some point, while I was checking the internet in what was called a bookstore that sold electronic goods, a yelling match broke out just a few dukas or stores away. At first, I thought it was someone hawking their goods, but then it became a furious shouting match. Curiosity got the better of me, so I stuck my nosey head out the door along with the others in the shop.
A crowd had swelled with a local BuiBui woman yelling at an elderly Indian shop keeper, but it was getting beyond the shouting point to pushing and full-on confrontation that now spilled out onto the main street—stopping busy foot traffic and even the heavily-laden the donkey carts in their tracks. Some men were trying to restrain the women and who knows what had precipitated this, but it soon was resolved.
As I headed off to the new Seven to Seven supermarket, a huge figure clad in the traditional brilliant white Swahili dishdasha called kanzu stood out, especially in this darkened narrow passageway that is called a street in Lamu. It was like seeing Gandalf with his brilliant white hue. However, this man had an expansive smile one that you associated with familiarity—it was a face I have known for many years—my old friend Sheikh Ahmed Badawy. He’s the same physical size of a James Earl Jones and with the same over-powering baritone voice to go along with it.
I hadn’t seen the rascal since 2001.
I yelled out his name, “Sheikh Badawy” and he remembered me saying—“Where have you been?”
We didn’t greet the traditional way they do in Lamu, me bending down and kissing his right hand wrist as a sign of respect, but as old friends in a gigantic bear hug.
He asked if I still worked at Nexen in Yemen and I was surprised he still remembered that, but I told him I was in Doha now. He told me he had worked in Yemen at a university, but then was forced to leave because of the war between North and South Yemen in the 1990s. My erstwhile and erudite friend, and former mentor, Bill Curry had too been in the same situation, maybe even the same university, and he also had to do rapid evacuation sans his final payout. Mombasa Bill had explained the whole scenario to me over Skype awhile back, but somehow had managed to get compensated by the British government when he accidentally bumped into some head mucky muck in a British embassy. I wondered if Sheikh might not be entitled to the same compensation.
We caught up on old times.
Since 2001, he had attained another masters in TESL from a British uni and was trying to get a job in the Gulf, but had been turned down by the University of Qatar. To soften the blow, I told him that I too had been spurned by them, but it was because of my age.
All of a sudden, we turned off from the busy street scene and entered a tight alleyway that lead north in the maze of Lamu’s side street of the Stonetown. We passed by dukas (small stores), no larger than a broom closet back home packed to the hilt and onto their steps with everything from phone cards, to Omo laundry detergent, sweets, tubs of Cowboy lard, withered chewing gums, packets of groundnuts, toothpaste, soap, …etc.
As we climbed the narrow alley, Sheikh, who is as tall as me, was stopped by a much shorter local who grabbed the Sheikh’s right wrist and kissed it. Then as I was looking at this old man’s bespectacled face, I realized that I knew him too.
We too shook hands and exchanged traditional greetings:
‘Habari ako?’ (How are you?)
Or sometimes, because of their Arabian roots, ‘Salam alaikum’
It was an old Lamu friend Sayed who ran the Rainbow Lodge that Janine and I stayed at in 1988, but I had known him from an earlier trip when I took his picture in the doorway of the same lodging. Apart from Sheikh Ahmed Badaway, Sayed was probably the oldest friend I had in Lamu. Ali Hippy probably was the oldest since I first met him in 1982 when I got off the boat at the Lamu main pier.
The Rainbow Lodge probably closed during the down years during the 1990s when tourism literally went south, south to Zanzibar when Tanzania started to open up to tourism and capitalism after enduring many years of a grim form of African socialism under Julius Nyerere.
We talked briefly about the old days as others rushed by us and I didn’t want to detain him too long as he was carrying a 25 kg bag of cement on his shoulders, so we agreed to meet again. I told him I had a photo of him and he said just to give it to the Sheikh for safe keeping. Sayed still showed his two big front teeth when he smiled.
As we walked, the Sheikh talked about someone called Hadrami which made us talk about the Hadramawt where I had worked for Nexen. He mentioned that he had been in Tarim and mentioned going to Gabr el Hud (The Tomb of Hud)—he was one of the early prophets. I told him, ‘I’ve been to Tarim and Seyoun, but my trip was cut short. They didn’t allow me to go beyond Tarim.’
Part of my 1999 trip’s itinerary was to go to Hud’s Tomb, but never made it as the Yemeni Army blocked that passage after Tarim. When I worked in the Hadramawt for Nexen from 2001-2003, we were forbidden to make trips outside our work camp as it would be considered as “grounds for dismissal” as my boss Bill Curry had told me in my interview.
The Sheikh and I had only walked a short distance when suddenly we turned left only to come upon a long line of men waiting to get into a house. On the left side of the narrow alley, in a small alcove, was what looked like a wooden cart with a stretcher on top draped in a fancy woven cloth with intricate gold and green embroidered Arabic script stitched onto it—no doubt some sura from the Koran.
Then the Sheikh explained that a very important person had died; the woman who owned one of the big resorts along Lamu’s Corniche. Initially, locals, mostly men in their kanzus had come to pay their respects to this woman. A little while later, a line of women in white veils also showed up and then once ushered inside the house, started singing praises to her.
The line of men and women grew and soon spread to where we were standing in the cross alleyway. Naturally, before and after paying their respects, everyone came to shake hands with the Sheikh and, because I was the only mzungu there, and an honoured friend of the imminent Sheikh no less, they were obliged to shake my hand too!
I must say that I felt somewhat out of place and a tad disrespectable, dressed in a tatty sweaty shirt and ratty shorts, but I did not know I would be meeting so many Lamu notables today. These were, for lack of a better word, the upper class or patricians of, if not Lamu society, then perhaps the entire Swahili society on the coast. Everyone had a pedigree of some sort going back to the founding of Lamu with my friend, Sheikh Ahmed, at the top of this pecking order.
After a multitude of greeting and salaams, we turned away from the busy side street to continue our walk to somewhere. It seemed like they would bury the body soon, but I had no idea when she had actually passed away.
I asked Sheikh, ‘According to Islamic tradition, isn’t the body supposed to be buried three days after death?’
“The family is waiting for her sons to return before the actual burial takes place,” he said, and continued, “you know they are spread out: one son is in Oman, another in England and one in Germany.”
We struggled up the side street which led to an open area with a plaster arch that we walked under announcing that we had arrived at the big mosque on the island. I had known that Sheikh Badawy’s ancestors, probably great, great grandfather had built this. Just inside the gate, we sat down on a concrete ledge that had a fresh coat of noora or lime wash on it, and for the next hour or so, the Sheikh regaled me with the history of this place—his history that is.
It was a blustery day here on one of the few hills on the island. A few grey cumulus clouds drifted by and it looked like it could rain again if only a quick sun shower. It had rained heavily yesterday when we got caught out in the squall that came in from the Indian Ocean. I mentioned the recent rains to the Sheikh, but he seemed to think it was a blessing. Perhaps they don’t get any rain here these days. I’ve never seen it rain here before in Lamu, but then, perhaps I was here during the ‘dry seasons’.
Some other men greeted him then sat down and chatted with the Sheikh, and were obviously looking and making some comment about me.
The Sheikh translated, ‘They want to know why you are wearing shorts in the complex.’
There was really no need to explain. If I had known I would meet the Sheikh and then be invited to a funeral in a mosque I would have dressed for the occasion, but he already knew that and had allayed their suspicions.
Again, as the faithful completed their prayers in the mosque, they passed by where we were sitting and stopped to pay their respects.
‘My great grandfather started this,’ he announced, swinging his right arm in a wide arc around the complex.
He pointed to what appeared to be a cinder block two storey house just at the corner of this mosque complex, “that’s my mother’s house over there.” There was another stucco and plastered arch with Momma Badawy’s house painted in green above it.
“I was born in that room up there.”
A motorbike drove by and I thought it was a tad disrespectful in a holy area especially when he beeped at no one—this left both us wondering who he was beeping at.
‘I don’t remember this area being paved with patio bricks,’ I said.
I said this while looking at some donkeys rolling in the sand just off the paved area. ‘Wasn’t this all sand before,’ I added. ‘I only remember this as sand and everyone sitting here at night reciting from the Qur’an during the Maulidi in 1986.”
‘Yes, you are right,’ he said, ‘I am planning to pave the whole area up to my mother’s place.’
I think he had got some kind of grant from a European or American agency. This was after all a World Heritage site.
Just then, some other African guy, not dressed in traditional kanzu came up, he looked like he was from upcountry, saying, ‘He was born up there.’
This guy looked a tad crazed, like he had been chewing qat. I don’t think he was Muslim, probably a tout, but I wasn’t buying anything he was selling as I was trying to listen to what the Sheikh had to say.
The Sheikh seemed to tolerate him, but nothing more.
I don’t even know if Sheikh knew him or vice versa.
Thank god he left. I felt uncomfortable being around the guy especially in the presence of his holiness.
At some point, some older gentleman came by with his entourage, and this time, it was the Sheikh who got up to greet him, as up to this point, it was the others who bowed to kiss his wrist, but this time the Sheikh did this. We shook hands and after the Sheikh explained that this man was the head of the mosque—perhaps the mullah or the religious sheikh of this mosque.
A little while later, an older crippled woman, held up by two crutches, struggled by us and the Sheikh shouted out a greeting to her, and when she was out of earshot, told me that he had taken her on the Haj many years ago.
The Sheikh kept peering back down the alley we had earlier walked up as if expecting someone.
‘I’m just staying here until they bring the body by as they go to the mosque.’
A little while later, the line of people coming into the mosque complex increased and then a procession of eight pallbearers in kanzus entered carrying the stretcher of green and gold embroidered cloth that covered the deceased. As they made their way to the mosque, the pall bearers changed positions with different men, all in freshly starched kanzus, taking their turn carrying the shrouded body.
I suppose it would be a great honour or sign of respect or both to carry the body of someone who had died. As they got close to us, the Sheikh stood up and he too joined in. He shuffled to the front of the men then shouldered the load for a short distance and then handed that duty over to some other younger man. They finally carried the body into the mosque.
I had a ring side seat and even the Sheikh was surprised that I didn’t have a camera or phone handy to take a shot of the event. We sat for a little longer then I bid him adieu as he most likely wanted to go into the mosque his grandad had built and pray with the others.
I hope to meet him again as I am here for maybe another month. He would be easy to find as he reminded me pointing up at one of the Swahili houses on the street just behind us, ‘Just look for the house with the red paint.’
Then he was gone again.