It’s Friday again in Shela Village. The Mwadhini’s song reverberates across the ripply Indian Ocean, a pied piper calling all inhabitants of Amu who practise the Islamic Faith to a sundowner of prayer.
If you’ve had a long day, the call to prayer means it’s time to go pray and then go home. However, if you’ve spent a substantial part of the hot day asleep in your hotel room, the Muezzin is your alarm to get you out of bed and get dressed.
The ocean breeze causes the white drapes to billow over your hotel balcony, prompting you to ponder where day ends and night begins.
You check your last MPESA message to see how much you still have in your phone. It’s not as bad as you thought. We’ll start with light sundowners at Peponi, you tell yourself, as you reflect on the history of this place.
In 1967, Aage and Wera Korschen, a farming couple of Danish and German origin, left the highlands of Nyahururu after the Kenyan post-independence Government Settlement Scheme forcefully acquired their farm. Their loss turned into a blessing when they stumbled upon an abandoned 1930s moorish house which stood on a remote beach on the Northern Archipelago of Lamu, which they converted into a small 4-bedroom guesthouse. A boutique hotel positioned perfectly to catch the best of the Indian Ocean trade winds, they decided to name their slice of paradise island Peponi Hotel.
You ponder on Peponi’s long-chartered history with your feet hanging over the edge of the pier where the waves crash against the wall. Across is the jetty where boats and dinghies of different makes are moored. The slower wooden boats fitted with a 15MPH engine are owned by the local Bajuni. They move so slowly you could start a conversation with a fish below the surface of the water. The whites, politicians and immigrant businessmen own the sleeker luxury powerboats fitted with 200MPH turbo engines; sometimes even two. Two 200MPH turbo engines could take you to Somalia and back in under 8 hours.
You reflect on the stark class disparities with a cold Pilsner in one hand, a camembert samosa in the other, watching the red and golden sunset as the rhythms of the night, and the alcohol, slowly descend upon you.
Omari lives not too far from Peponi. You know that if you get him drunk enough, he’ll start ranting his usual nonsense, telling you of how his grandparents sold their ancestral land, the plot on which Peponi sits, for peanuts. How nonetheless the land still remains their ancestral land, regardless of whether it changed hands over 60 years ago.
Omari is a fisherman, like half the male population on Shela Island. He woke up with the setting sun just like you. Except that, unlike you, he’s about to clock into work. You decide to pass the time together since you’re both waiting for nightfall to bring good tidings.
The sun has set. It’s dark now. Omari is passed out on the table from one too many beers downed post-haste in the span of the hour. The calmness of Peponi bores you. Where to next? It’s still fairly early so we’ll pace ourselves, you tell yourself, using Omari for caution. Slow and steady is the mantra of Amu, a local will tell you; speed is for speedboats. Let’s just walk along the beach to Kijani, where a meal costs the same as a night at your airbnb, and a night costs the same as your return ticket to Nairobi.
The boat builders by the Whale Monument discretely offer you a toke of their marijuana joint as you pass by. It would be considered rude to decline the friendly offer. Meaning you are fairly high when you finally walk into Kijani. The wealthy expatriates and monied Nairobians are already there- catching up on the local gossip.
“Did you hear Camilla Olbart just bought Susan and Jack’s old Manda plot? I hear she plans to build another villa…”
“Captain Bashir? The last time I saw him he was so sloshed at Mira’s party we had to drive the boat home ourselves!”
“I cannot believe the county government still hasn’t moved the fish market from the Lamu seafront. It makes the town look so unattractive! I’m gonna call Fahim [former Governor of Lamu] myself first thing tomorrow morning!”
The legendary Lamu DJ, DJ Saitan, is on the decks playing smooth jams for the 30-year-olds trapped in the bodies of 60-year-olds. We dance and jive and take overpriced shots and eat overpriced tuna carpaccio.
But not for long. Someone soon interrupts the party: “I heard Blinky Bill is playing at Diamond Beach Tonight.” This statement, clearly heard over the disco, starts a migration.
This crowd of friends, acquaintances, people you just met and some you don’t know at all beeline for the flotilla of boats bobbing silently at the pier. Someone calls out the boat captains, who soon appear shining flashlights, each heading to their boats. The boats are emblazoned with names like ‘Black Tafi’ ‘The Beyoncè’ and ‘Sweet Mother’s Milk’
Some of the luxury speed boats look familiar. They were docked at Peponi not too long ago. Some of the people on the boats hired them for the night, while others, just like you, are hitching a ride from the boat captains who they befriended during the week. You board and cross from Shela to Manda. It is like crossing a vast deep road. You land at Diamond Beach, a rustic eco-lodge run by an English woman and her mother, renowned for their legendary pizzas and even more legendary parties.
It turns out not to have been a rumour after all. Blinky Bill is indeed playing at Diamond Beach, and entry is free. Blinky Bill loves Lamu and Lamu loves Blinky Bill. We mob him on the sandy dancefloor as he weaves through the crowd chanting ‘aiaiaiaiaiaiaia simama, bado mapema simama, wacha tusherekee’ into his mic.
It cuts through barriers of language, race, and class. The non-swahili speaking tourists respond to the vibrancy of the music, even though they can’t understand the lyrics. Everyone dances freely, boat captains dance with tourists, expats rub against local fishermen. It’s free entry, which means the baharias are here in plenty. Who would have paid 1500 bob for a ticket, anyway? That’s what it normally costs to hire a boat from Shela to here.
The baharias are getting rowdier by the second and grinding up against everybody sporting a sliver of the female phenotype. It’s starting to turn into sexual harassment.
You bribe your boat captain friend with two Pilsners to take you back to Shela so you can go dance at Mara Raha instead.
Shela is a maze. One wrong left turn and you’re back where you started. The night is silent. The residents of Shela are resting soundlessly in their beds while you chart your way past the same compounds where their loved ones are buried in the backyard.
This is a foreign concept to you: your ancestral home and actual home being one and the same thing. The idea that in the morning they will walk out into their gardens to inhale the fresh air of a new day, their feet treading the same path their great-grandparents followed nearly a century ago; and in that same garden adjacent to where they rest in their beds, rests the bones of their great grandparents.
Mara Raha is located deep inside the heart of Shela’s sand-dunes. The walk is treacherous on your calves, but eventually, you arrive. DJ D is on the decks playing Nigerian Afrobeats, Nairobi Gengetone and Tanzanian Bongoflava. The crowd is more mixed than the boat captains and fishermen at the last joint. You grab a beer and sit by the fireside while a man sporting a touch of jungle fever approaches you to marvel at the brownness of your skin. You nod and flash him a tight smile, but decide you’d rather be on the dancefloor.
But just as the party is getting started they have to end abruptly at 11pm. The noise disturbs Shela residents who have already gone to bed, and who can’t stand debauchery in their town. Sound travels faster than light at night in Shela, especially on a moonless night with stars the size of saucers. Walking to Mara Raha past private residences you were able to hear intimate sounds through the walls; you, the unsuspecting audio voyeur; you, the third person in the room hiding in the closet of their sounds. They can’t hear you but you can hear them. You can hear them a bit too clearly for your liking. Or maybe you do like it. We’ll conduct a Freudian analysis on this later.
So what now?
You might as well roam further into the sand dunes and onto Mararani Village before the tourist police arrive at Mara Raha as they’re known to do whenever the clock strikes too close to midnight. We’re basically night runners at this point. The tin kiosks are still awake and vibrant, bustling with activity from the hybrid Mijikenda-Swahili community of Mararani. They’re playing marbles, flirting with their wives, and selling roasted chicken out of a vibandas for 150 bob a quarter.
Here, they’re women. Local women, but not Swahili women. You realize you haven’t seen a single Swahili woman all night. Word on the street is that it is of the utmost haram for a Swahili girl to be out at night.
But the Mijikenda women kick their heads back and cackle at lewd jokes with their fathers, sons, uncles, cousins and neighbours. They smoke cigarettes in public without a care in the world. It is the only reminder that it is the 21st century in Lamu; the island being a UNESCO world heritage site. Lamu must never appear to be too far removed from the 1819 Arab-Portugese era, otherwise the UNESCO status will be revoked.
And so what to do?
You follow a rasta-clad man down another maze of sand dunes into the local mangwe where a lady in a dheera filters a wine bottle, filling it to the brim with mnazi wine.
“Hii si mkoma?”
The rastaman does his due diligence and takes a sip to make sure you haven’t been duped with the laodicean’s date palm wine rather than the purist’s coconut wine. Satisfied, he hands the barmaid a twenty shilling coin and you take your drink back to the shore near your hotel. Therefore you can conveniently crawl back home at sunrise when the Mwadhini croons the first Adhan of the day, waking the island from their slumber. Theirs, not yours.