It turns out that being sat onto the back of a donkey for a ride around Lamu isn’t exactly everybody’s idea of a good time. We were on our way, by boat, from Shela to Lamu, when the guide came up with the brilliant suggestion that the kids might like ride a donkey around town rather than dragging about on foot. Knowing that the Lamu town tour was seriously pushing our luck with the kids who would have been far happier to spend the morning by the pool, we jumped at the idea. However, it turns out that my eleven year old was nonplussed.
Because of the absence of cars, donkeys are the main mode of transport around Lamu. Before the donkey rides commenced, we were proudly shown the ‘donkey sanctuary’ right on the waterfront where tired, aged and injured donkeys go to get some rest. It looked nice enough and benefited from the shade of a tree and some sea breeze. This all would have been fine but for the fact that you only had to turn ninety degrees toward the main street, to view numerous processions of donkeys bound together carrying back-breaking panniers filled with stones and building materials, knees buckling under the weight.
“Are you sure that it’s not too heavy for the donkey?” A concerned mum asked as saw this very spectacle. “Oh they’re fine.” Replied the guide. “They’re so used to it.”
So, shaking off any reservations, we piled the kids on the donkeys two by two; the larger ones on the bigger beasts of burden and the younger kids on the skinnier ones (note how the kids feet are almost touching the ground). Doing a town tour where your kids are lead away from you riding an animal is pretty much the perfect scenario for me. Wasn’t so great for my daughter. Her face said it all.
“I feel so sorry for the donkey, mum.” she said with real tears in her eyes as we huddled along a narrow back street along the way. “The man keeps hitting it.”
“Oh it’s fine,” I said, straining to hear the guide talk about how the houses keep cool with clever Arabic architectural design. “He’s not actually hurting it.” My daughter gave me a deathly stare. So much for the special treat.
And there was something else that was impossible to ignore. Lamu was hot. We had all dressed in demure cover-up clothing out of respect for the culture around us. I was wearing trousers and a long sleeved shirt and boy I was sweating. It reminded me so much of living in Dar es Salaam> I’d almost forgotten that feeling of sweat running down the back of your legs.
Swahili House Museum
One of the interesting points in the tour (and where the kids were allowed to disembark from their donkeys) was the Swahili House museum. It is furnished exactly as a traditional house would have looked 100 years ago and probably how many houses basically still look today. There was a central courtyard off which was a living room, bathroom and bedroom. Up steep steps was a rooftop kitchen and garden area with a well. Inside the house, I asked about the intriguing narrow dead end corridor that ran alongside the entrance. Apparently this was the space from where ladies could communicate behind a thick wall with visitors, so as not to be seen. There were also rooms that women could retreat to if husbands were hosting visitors. Quite a lot of the tour alluded to the woman of the house’s lack of freedom, to the point that only the children and men were allowed upstairs to hang the washing. We talked about how the space inside the house kept cool but it still felt pretty hot to me. My parents-in-law, who lived in Mombasa for years, had a great strategy for dealing with coastal heat. Just don’t move. Don’t move an inch and you can get through it.
The kids leapt back onto the donkeys (with some persuasion) and we went on to visit a little silversmith’s shop, a fabric shop then a veg market. By the end of the morning, the kids were flagging. Luckily my friend produced half a packet of polos, then suggested a polo sucking competition, which distracted everyone until the boat was ready to board.
For anyone who wants to shop in Lamu or similar old quarters of coastal towns in East Africa, it’s a matter of balancing expectations. Dark doorways give onto shadowy, hot spaces sometimes packed floor to ceiling with fabrics or perhaps just a few dusty exhibits in glass boxes. There’s almost always a fairly pushy salesman who thinks that all their christmases have come early when you walk in the door. Bargaining is expected. I quickly bought a couple of tiny silver Russian wedding rings for the two daughters who were not there and paid by MPesa (mobile money transfer) while my youngest was sitting on a donkey outside, decidedly unhappy about the delay…and the state of her donkey. A friend bought a kikoy and we all braved the noise and bustle of the covered veg market to get some supplies for lunch.
Shopping in Shela the following day was easier because I ventured out alone. Admittedly I did get lost but managed to follow my nose and found some treasures. My favourite find was the decidedly cool Ali Lamu store selling bags, cushion covers and funky artwork made from recycled dhow sails. I loved the overnight bags but only managed to stretch to a washbag.
There was a moment when I got slightly freaked by a group of braying donkeys blocking my path, much to the amusement of some town residents.
Overall a fab trip and can’t wait for an excuse to go back to Lamu. Next time with the whole family. And perhaps without the donkey ride…
Related Post: Arriving in Magical Lamu