Lamu County

Discover Lamu County

Spatial Location of Lamu County in Kenya
Spatial Location of Lamu County in Kenya

Brief Overview of Lamu County

Everything about Lamu Island appears unique. Its natural beauty and laid back tenor attract travellers eager to experience its old-world charisma and charm. Safe streets leads out to empty beautiful beaches, on a salubrious coastal, and at all times to the warm welcome and quiet hospitality of the people of Lamu with their fascinating customs and rich culture. The customs of the natives appear to be the most amusing of it all. Not easily accessible, Lamu Island has remained relatively undisturbed by colonization, modernization and even mass tourism. Travellers to the island can enjoy pleasurable walks through the central street, leading to the spines of narrow alleys into various wards, to experience its rich, centuries old history. From Lamu Town travellers may visit Shela Village, Pate and Manda Islands and enjoy boat trips and walks through the bucolic, dreamy hamlets, ancient monuments, museums, markets, deserted beaches and hotels.

Of a more recent development, the new and modern Port of Lamu – plying the 39 fathoms or 234 feet deep Lamu-Manda Channel – is inevitably set to change the face of Lamu Island and the surrounding areas. As one would expect, this has naturally been received with some angst and antipathy that the completed Lamu Port will destroy the history, heritage and cultures of Lamu. “The chronic trauma is characterised by grounded feelings of displacement, dispossession, and alienation” – Ridwan Laher. A second significant development, that’s more solicitously received, is the construction of the C112 Garsen-Witu-Lamu Road linking Lamu County with Tana River and Kilifi Counties by 2020. The 225 kms drive from Malindi to Mokowe through Garsen is theoretically all-weather and the road is in fact in good state. However during the rain season it is regularly breached by flood-water. Certainly, the 20th Century has indeed reached Lamu.

Much of the sickle-shaped Lamu County – bordered on the northeast, east and southeast by the Indian Ocean – at the southeast corner of Kenya is generally flat, at between 0 to 50 ms asl, with a total land surface area of 6,273 km2. It is composed of the mainland, 65 islands (Lamu Archipelago), a 130 kms coastline and a marine territory spread over 308.5 km2. Lamu Town on Lamu Island, its capital, is the key target and center of interest for most visitors to Lamu County. Lamu Island itself, along the southeastern area, is reached via boat either from Mokowe Jetty for those approaching it by road from Malindi, or from Manda Jetty for those flying in to Manda Airport. Once in Lamu Town, you will find history unfolding round every corner. The little town, consisted of a maze alleys and sombre grey-coral-rag houses sometimes enlivened with ornately carved doors, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its incredible history.

Shela Beach overlooking Manda Channel and Manda Island.  iStock Images
Shela Beach overlooking Manda Channel and Manda Island. iStock Images

Salient Features of Lamu County

  • County Number 05
  • Area – 6273 km2
  • Altitude – 1010 ft
  • Major Towns – Lamu, Shela, Manda
  • Borders – Kilifi, Garissa, Tana-River
Lamu County Map

Brief History of Lamu County

The earliest settlers in Lamu, or rather the most pervasive influence, came from the Arabian Peninsula, through the Middle East and Arab trade, from the 8th century onwards. They called the local people ‘Swahili’, meaning people of the coast, and the gradual intermarriage of the two communities and their lifestyles created an enduring new culture. Lamu’s strategic position between Kismayu in the north and Zambezi River in the south, in the bosom of deep inlets along its coast, enclosing small islands with protected positions enjoying good rainfall and fringed by coral reefs, lined for most of its length with mangrove forests, upended its early-days development and attracted numerous settlements. The peopling of this backwater of Kenya’s coast and the islands facing it have since these early days been Swahili speaking Muslims. Lamu archipelago occupied a fairly prominent place in the trade of the Indian Ocean since the early centuries of our era, when it was known to the Greeks by the name of Azania. It is shown on the early 12th century map of Al-Idrisi. Local chiefs ruled under the overall authority of the ruler of the south Arabian kingdom of Himyar. The trade of the area seems to have moved from the Gulf of Aden to Oman, whose shipowners employed navigators from the port of Siraf in southern Iran. Lamu’s towns were famous for ivory which was exported by the merchants to the Muslim countries.

The earliest known Swahili town along Kenya’s coast is that of the 9th century town of Manda which was excavated by Neville Chittick in 1966. Chittick’s view is that it was the creation of colonizers from overseas. This, if correct, confirms the account above and a reference by Al-Mas’udi to Muslim immigrants to the coast in the 8th century. By the 11th Century, Manda, alongside Lamu, Pate and Shanga, was a blooming trading settlement associated with long distance trade along the Swahili East African Coast and a central base between Kismayu and Zambezi River. Around the 16th Century, Lamu flourished as a borough trading slaves with the Middle East. One of the earliest written accounts of Lamu Town was by Arab traveller Abu-al-Mahasini in 1441; 56 years before the arrival of the Portuguese in East Africa. During the Portuguese rule in Kenya (1498 to 1600), Lamu archipelago was one of the most rebellious boroughs, and the Portuguese had to undertake a punitive expedition in 1636-7 to suppress Lamu, Faza, Pate and Manda Islands. During the 17th century Portugal succeeded in asserting its ascendency over the larger stretch of the coast. Portuguese garrisons occupied several points. In Lamu the Portuguese kept a customs house in Pate. During the second half of this century Portugal’s dominance was deteriorating in the aftermath of intense competition from Dutch and English commercial interests.

Swahili dissent against the Portuguese along the Kenyan coast was led by Pate, aided by the Omani, vehemently rising against the Portuguese on five different occasions during the 17th century. Portugal’s end came with the capture of Fort Jesus by Omani Arabs in 1669 after a siege of thirty months. Omani’s political influence remained prevalent on a limited scale through the Mazrui, a clan of Omanis who established themselves as hereditary rulers of Mombasa. Under their rule Mombasa dominated most of the towns of the northern coast up until the end of the 18th century. In 1746, with the overthrow of the Ya’rubi dynasty in Oman, the Mazrui declared their independence from Oman. In the following decades Mombasa grew in strength and signed a treaty of alliance with its old time rival, Pate. The alliance came to a breaking point in 1812 after the joint forces of Mombasa and Pate lost a decisive battle against Lamu town. Lamu, fearful of similar acts of aggression appealed to Oman for protection. This gave Oman’s new leader, Seyyid Said, an opportunity for direct intervention and a base which he later consolidated by terminating Mazrui rule in Pate and then in Mombasa. In mid 19th Century, Lamu came under the influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. In short order, the Germans claimed Witu in 1885. Lamu remained a haven of peace during the ‘Mau-Mau revolts’ that afflicted many parts of Kenya.

View of the sea-side street in Lamu Town, Lamu Island.  Photo Courtesy
View of the sea-side street in Lamu Town, Lamu Island. Image Courtesy
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55 Attractions in Lamu County, arranged as one would visit these - west, south, north then west - with aid of in-depth narratives, images, strip maps and distance chart:

Delta Dunes Lodge, Witu Forest Reserve, Amu Ranch, Kipini Conservancy, Lake Kenyatta, Lamu (Manda Bay) Port, Lamu Island, Matondoni Dau Workshop, Matondoni Ruins, Tusitiri Dhow, Kipungani Ruins, Kizingoni Beach, Lamu Town, Lamu World Heritage Site, Lamu Museum, Swahili House Museum, German Post Office Museum, Lamu Fort, Masjid Riyadha, House of Habib Swaleh, Mosque College of Lamu, Lamu Catholic Church, Lamu Market, Tamarind Tree Cafe, Lamu Donkey Sanctuary, Floating Bar and Restaurant, Lamu, Shela Village, Friday Mosque, Forodhani House, Peponi Hotel, Shela Beach, Bahari Restaurant, The Fort at Shela, Ras Kitau, The Maljis Resort, Takwa Ruins, Manda Island, Manda Toto Island, Nabahani Ruins, Pate Island, Shanga Ruins, Siyu Fort, Atui Ruins, Chundwa Ruins, Faza Village, Monuments in Lamu, Mangrove Forests, Dodori National Reserve, Kiunga Marine Reserve, Kiwayu Island, Ashuwei, Boni Forest National Reserve, Ishakani (I,II,III) Ruins, Festivals in Lamu

Geography, Land-Use, Highlights, Population, Roads, Airports, Climate & National Monuments in Lamu County