Kenya: Lamu, The Swahili Maulid Town with an International History

Our last stop on our trip to Kenya, lay just off its coast. The Lamu Archipelago, a group of small islands, are situated 350km from Mombasa and bear the traces of a varied historical and cultural past. Lamu Old Town, on Lamu island, is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town, founded in 1370 as one of the original Swahili settlements along the coast of East Africa. Though other settlements were eventually abandoned, Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not only the best preserved, but has flourished for more than 700 years. Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, like other coastal East African towns, its architecture, like its history, is a blend of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European styles.


The oldest written reference to Lamu is found in the writings of Arab traveller Abu-al-Mahasini, who met a judge from Lamu in Mecca in 1441. There are also accounts that claim ships from the Chinese fleet of Zheng He sank close to Lamu island in 1415. It has been suggested that the survivors settled on Pate island, founded the village of Shanga and married local women after converting to Islam.


In the 16th century, Lamu was invaded by the Portuguese, who enjoyed a monopoly on shipping in the region. 150 years later, Lamu freed itself of Portuguese control, aided by Oman. From the late 17th to the early 19th century, it enjoyed a period of cultural prosperity, ruled as a republic under an Omani protectorate. During this time, it became a centre for literature and scholarship, as well as arts, crafts and trade. In the mid-19th century, during the colonial period, Lamu first came under the control of the sultan of Zanzibar, followed by the Germans, and lastly the British; this latter period came to an end in 1963 when Kenya gained its independence from the British.


A Russian traveller, by the name of Philip Efremov, visited the island in the late 18th century and chronicled his travels in a journal. He wrote, “The place seemed rather pleasant to look at. The ocean was emerald, and the palm trees on the coast were very tall…I thought Lamu was beautiful. All around the city, I could see the influence of Afro-Arabian culture. Downtown Lamu consisted of stone buildings constructed of local materials. They were made from large coral and calcareous stones, fastened with slaked lime and some other solutions. Wood beams and overhead covers were made of the mangroves poles that grow plentiful around the islands.” 


He was fascinated by the local people about whom he writes, “I haven’t yet got used to the Swahili people, and I looked at them with interest. Both in stature and appearance, they looked simply wonderful: neither Arabs nor Africans, just something in between. And they spoke amongst themselves in a mixed language. Half of the words were Arabic, and half were local.” [1]

Noticing the “black coverlets” worn by the women, who were covered from head-to-toe, he was confused by how men could possibly choose their brides. [2] 


As with other trade ports in the region, such as Zanzibar, he also mentioned that slaves were for sale on the island.[3] It is thought that one of the reasons for the decline of the island, before it came under Zanzibar’s rule, was the forced closure of the slave markets by the Britsh in 1873.

A significant moment for the spiritual life of Lamu was the arrival of Habib Salih bin Alawi Jalal al-Layl, the scholar and healer from Hadramaut, Yemen, whose blessed lineage goes all the way back to the Prophet (saws).

Riyaadha mosque lamu

The Riyaadha Mosque and boarding school that he established, stand just outside of his former home and continue to be a centre for learning and remembrance of Allah.

habib salih lamu

His legacy of spiritual and natural healing lives on through the annual Lamu Maulidi Festival and Red Crescent Clinic. The occasion draws visitors from all over East Africa to celebrate the birth of Prophet Muhammad (saws) for three continuous days. Visitors bring medical supplies and participate in blood drives to support the medical mission.

The Maulid involves daily gatherings outside of the mosque; songs in praise of the Prophet are sung, and narration’s from his life are read aloud. Prayer vigils are held at night, and ceremonies involving rhythmic drum beating and dance take place in the town centre. There are also processions leading to Habib Salih’s burial place.

Lamu mauled

lamu mauled

Today, Lamu is home to 23 mosques, including the 14th century Pwani mosque (the oldest on the island), and a donkey sanctuary.


Though it is a notably conservative part of Kenya, Lamu has grown accustomed to the traffic of elites, backpackers, yoga enthusiasts and spiritual seekers. Like a gracious host, Lamu maintains its integrity while making room for the many who choose to visit or make the island their home.



[1] Vasiliev, Yury, Over the Equator: Pages from the Journal of Russian Trailblazer Philip Efremov“, Trafford Publishing, 2012, pp.46.

[2] ibid, pp.47

[3] ibid, pp.48


Further Information 

Lamu’s Last Chinese | The Maritime Silk Road | CNA Insider

1492: The Prequel by

This article was originally published at Sacred Footsteps.


One comment

  1. As I read your accounting of the present state of affairs, you intertwined it with the “yesteryear.” Even the photography demonstrated the blend! I stand amazed at your vivid writing’s account and how it slow down my reading. I was visualizing the pride in the faces of the natives and your apparent love for adventure in new/old culture. You “took” us there! Keep the fingers dancing on the keys with joy rhythms!


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