One of the city-states founded by Yemeni Hadhrami Arabs was Lamu, an island off the present Kenyan coast, a world heritage site
What kind of seas do you ask me about?
About clouds of fire and islands of coral?
Throughout its history Yemen has been a seafaring nation, famed for boat building and its mariners navigation skills. While the Yemeni sailors harnessed the monsoon winds to reach distant ports, inland its farmers harnessed water to develop life-sustaining agriculture adopting to a harsh and often formidable environment.
Archaeologists are still investigating these long gone civilizations that have played a major role in transforming global history. These ancient civilizations introduced deep-sea sailing vessels capable of long distance travel and trade. At this time writing, banking, shareholding were established and developed societies were formed for perhaps the first time over.
Linen, cotton, wool and metal were taken to China, where cargoes of silk, camphor, musk, spice were exchanged and Yemen acquired ceramics. Southern Arabia was on cross roads on the trade routes between China and India to the East, and the Red Sea and East Africa to the southwest providing merchants with a huge and lucrative markets. One of the city-states founded by Yemeni Hadhrami Arab travelers was located on the island just off the northern coast of present day Kenya called Lamu.
:For a voyage in the Lamu Islands
await the end of the rains
when they have finished, board,
not a steamer but a dhow.
By early June, the monsoon breaks and there are three month of wind and water with short spells of sharp glittering sunshine. The wind and rain, the sudden thunder darkness of the day, and the sky beyond. In the absence of words and the emptiness in eyes, an inky sea. Taste of the hot salt breeze was in their mouth. It is warm, the water, gray – green, like rippled silk, with flash in it, with the sky and palm trees in it, and at night, yellow moon in it. Their faces would soften, for them ritual prayer had an outer form and an inner reality:
While there certainly were early settlements on the island, the present town site is not likely to be much older than the 14th century. Lamu soon emerged as an important center of learning in East Africa along with Kilwa, Mombasa and Zanzibar. Tarim and Seyun in Hadhramawt, a governorate in the present Republic of Yemen, would set the fashion and habits, linguistic patterns and many times seeds for new agricultural crops.
Lamu flourished as an independent city-state until 1506 when Portugese traders, seeking to control a lucrative market with the Orient, invaded it. Over the course of the 16th century, the once prosperous Swahili town lost its middleman position and gradually declined. Resistance to the Portuguese was finally successful with the help of the Turks and in 1698 the last forces surrendered. The Omanis who had helped overcome the European invaders now became the dominant force in the region.
Under Omani protection, coastal commerce slowly regained its former momentum. During this period Lamu inhabitants built most of the traditional stone houses and mosques still standing in the old town today. They used the coral stone and mangrove timber from the archipelago and also employed skilled craftsmen from India.
The island remained prosperous for over two hundred year until the later 19th century when the British began to take interest in East Africa. But it was the towns isolation from 20th century modernization that preserved the rich architectural heritage still existing today.
The best part of Lamu is the approach by sailing boat from the seaside. Before is the coral coast, the savannas and arid steppes with spare thorn trees, in front are the coconut palms and mango trees, behind the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, shining now like pearl in the early night. The travelers then and now were charmed by the beauty of the town’s eastern aspect, where it stretches along the sea front with its white buildings with pillared porticoes and oriental arches, framed by palm groves under a deep blue sky. The mansions of the waterfront and the palm trees in the plantations, its shaded streets, Lamu used to the named the "Paradise of the Coast".
The guests were sprinkled with rose-perfumed water, and given nuts to chew. The citizens would slaughter many camels a day. Carpets would be laid on the floors on the guesthouse. The meal consisted of rice cooked, or fried in butter, dishes of meat, fowl, fish and vegetables, pickles, lemons, bananas, ginger and mangoes. The fine clothes of the leading citizens were imported from Yemen, Egypt, and even Syria. Wonderful orchards contained lemon, lime, and banana trees and rose apples which grow in the island. Mosques were built of coral stone:
No prerecorded message broadcast, rising distant and clear from some small, nameless mosque south of town, or from Riyadha Mosque or the Mwenye Alawi: "Hurry to your prayers".
The hot season begins and the breeze that normally cools Lamu shifts from an easterly kaskazi to a southerly kusi. The kusi brings the "long rains", heavy storms preceding the cool season. They have already begun inland, ending a drought. On the far horizon, over bush and baobabs, banks of cumulus catch fire in the approaching dawn. The sun fires the high-piled clouds that turn crimson and orange, then pale to a hot chrome yellow.
Lamu has its own dialect, of course, called Kiamu. It has been used and refined by numerous poets, including Yusufu Lamui, Ali Saji, Zahidi Mngumi, Muhiuddini, Sayidi Mansabu and the colorful, brilliant Muhammadi Abu Bakari Kijuma, poet, scholar, calligrapher, painter, woodcarver, musician and much more with links to Hadhramawt in Yemen. He wrote a long poem in praise of the women in Lamu. He also wrote down, from the oral traditions, the now famous – Habari ya Lamu, the Story of Lamu.
HABARI YA LAMU, THE STORY OF LAMU
The first people of Lamu were Arabs who came from Damascus, Syria. It was Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan the Caliph who, in 77 A.H. sent them to the Coast when he needed great quantities of copper. After this first group who were sent, others came who were kinsmen of theirs. Their leader was Haji Saidi. More Arab settlers arrived until they were so numerous and powerful that the town they built, Hedabu, now covered by a hill, was the greatest on Lamu Island. They did not know that on Weyu there was the town of the Weyuni who were very powerful since they mustered 12.000 armed men.
When the Arabs learned that there was a town near their own, they wanted the Weyuni to be under their power. Those Weyuni claimed to be Arabs who came from Yunubu (Yanbu) and they were the people who were known (lit. greeted) as Wayumbili.
The two groups could not agree and they battled for many days until on both side people came out and said, we want peace. Both sides sent envoys and they signed a peace agreement. An old man of the Weyuni warned: "Do not leave your weapons at home, the day of peace is the day of war". He was right. They, the Weyuni arrived unarmed at the peace meeting but the Wahedabu had daggers. They cheated and slew the Weyuni in great numbers.
Many years later there arrived Arabs and Muslims from India who brought saplings of coconut palms. The Arabs spoke to Haji Saidi: You must be our chief, you came here first". Her answered: "Select a man every year to be your chief. I will be the one who decided cases when there is no agreement". They were all reconciled with that. Haji Saidi was given the title of "Yumbe of the Palace".
The men from India were called Kina-miti "People of the Trees".Apart from the Wayumbili and the Weyuni there were the Wafamau, the people of Famau. These are the main tribes of Lamu. Bwana Tamu, the king of Pate, built a ship and sent soliders to attack Lamu but the men of Lamu beat them with big sticks because in those days the Lamuans were very strong. One day the Lamuans were in large numbers and marched to Mombasa where they sacked the old town. The Sultan of Pate, Bwana Bakari wa Bwana Mukuu, came to Lamu one day to marry a women from Lamu. They had two daughters, whom the Sultan sent to Pate. One of them married a man called Bwanyai wa Shiywe and had a son called Fumo Luti. By the time her father had died and Bwana Madi had become sultan. He spoke: when I die, Fumo Luti will inherit the kingdom, so that there may be no sedition, and he may have support from outside". But when he died, someone else ascended the throne of Pate, so the Lamuans came and made war which lasted a long time. This was the cause of the battle of Shela (1812).
The Lamuans had sent a delegation to Sayid Said, ruler of Zanzibar and imam of Oman, to ask him for help to face Mombasans. Sayid Said graciously agreed to send 500 soldiers to Lamu under his commander Nasuru. Lamuans built a fort for them which is stil there and the Arab solider stayed. Sayind Said henceforth ruled Lamu and the town prospered with it.
Sayid Said died in 1273/1856 and was succeeded by his son Majid. Soon afterwards, the town of Kipini, Pate and Siu rebelled, Sayid Majid ordered the men of Lamu to patrol the sea with their ships. Sayid Barghash, who organized his whole state properly, so that he controlled all the Swahili towns, except Witu. Sayid Barghash harassed Witu until it sought protection from him with the Germans. Sayid Barghash died in 1305/1888 and was succeeded by his brother Ali who reigned only two years.
It happened in those days that there was a great scarcity of women in Lamu so that a man could not marry at all unless he belonged to the upper class of Lamu society with the lineage of twelve generations in the female as well as in the male line, of pure Lamu descent.
A man who did not have such a status had not chance to marry. Therefore the men of Lamu held council and decided to do away with these restrictions, so they threw all the family records in the sea.
That is why there are no historical documents left in Lamu. Now it suffices for someone to be the son of somebody, to marry. That name suffices.
Peace to the readers. These words were copied from Shaiba Faraj bin Hamed al Bakariy al-Lumuy, by Saleh on orders from the Governor Abdullah bin hamed.
"Habari Ya Lamu" is a collection of events and anecdotes including the names and dates of ruler, but very little about the events in their reign. The chronicle ends with the poem
We accept that when the boat sinks
We shall all be in the water.
We, free men and bondsmen.
Image: The mansions of the waterfront and the palm trees in the plantations, its shaded streets, Lamu used to the named the "Paradise of the Coast"