January 2, 2011

Lamu time

About 100 kilometers north of Mombasa, is the island of Lamu undisturbed by the turmoil of modern times it boasts a timeless serenity. Set in an archipelago of coral fringed islands, Lamu Town was a trading centre for hundreds of years. Great lateen-rigged dhows sailed in from Arabia and India, buying and selling ivory and spices. The resultant blend of cultures has produced a vibrant people, the Swahili, who are rich in history and justifiably proud of their maritime tradition. To this day there are no cars on the island, and transport is by dhow, donkey or on foot.

Swahili architecture is a style of building along the eastern and southeastern coasts of Africa. Though essentially of Arabic or Persian style and origin; archaeological, written, linguistic, and cultural evidence also suggests strong African influence and sustainment. There is evidence of enduring Arabic and Islamic influence in the form of trade, inter-marriage, and an exchange of ideas.

Lamu's unique stone townhouses, many dating back to the early 18th Century, are celebrated for their intricately carved wooden front doors, imposing entrance porches and shady courtyards, the grandeur and elegance of their interiors and their beautiful decorative stucco plasterwork.

The traditional stone house is Lamu's classic building type - found exclusively in Mkomani - the northern and oldest part of the town - a patrician area built and inhabited by wealthy merchants and noble Arab families - many of whose descendants still live in these grand, historic family homes.

They vary in size and form, from relatively modest, single-story houses to magnificent mansions, but all share a uniformity of design, construction and decoration. Each house follows a universal, centuries-old plan, and consists of a series of richly-ornamented galleries facing northwards towards Mecca. Thick external walls, high ceilings and small windows protect the inhabitants from the equatorial sun and ensure that the interiors are cool, private and secluded.

Of course not every Lamu home can or should be an absolutely traditional and historically accurate stone townhouse - many houses now have makuti-thatched roofs for instance - which were only introduced in the 20th century.

Much of the skill and pleasure of planning, restoring, building and furnishing a house here lies in working within the vernacular architectural style and with traditional local building materials, and in the adaptation and interpretation of time-honoured forms and designs to fit modern day needs.