Courageous and Coping in a Time of Crisis

Diane McLeish

© Copyright 2021 by Diane McLeish

Photo of the hotel door.
Photo by the author.

Time may be our greatest gift from the devastating Coronavirus pandemic.

It is a time to stay motivated when we cannot see the chances of an open door. It is a time to stay hopeful. Once a crisis is in motion, to turn it into an opportunity requires new ways of thinking and responding. It also requires courage and looking at the problem through a different lens.

I decided to explore the challenges facing a small establishment on Lamu Island lying off Kenya’s north coast. It had recently changed hands and despite being closed to visitors and having no idea of what the future of travel will be, the young managers have been determined to bring the charming but jaded little hotel back to life. Whilst pondering the obstacles they face, I also learnt of the intriguing history of the architect and previous owner of this tranquil little Swahili retreat.

Some people have a vision and it takes courage to see a future at a time when the world has changed and travel has been hit hard with many unable or unwilling to travel. People will always want to travel so it will just take a while to soothe anxieties. It can be hard to look ahead when all has come to a grinding halt and no one knows what lies ahead.

The new owners have the fortune to have enthusiastic and energetic young managers who currently rent and manage the property. In the short time they have been there, they have initiated some well planned changes to revive the old hotel. However, so courageous and inspired are they that it is the work that they have undertaken during the lockdown that is so commendable.

Lamu is a place like no other, a peaceful island life where life is lived at its own relaxed rhythm, but a place whose history is as mysterious and fascinating as the winding streets of its medieval stone town.

Lamu archipelago, which lies off the north coast of Kenya has been an alluring destination for centuries and has been inhabited continually since the 12th century. Through the centuries it has served as an important trading post for ships travelling the African, Arab and Indian trade routes, with the culture unchanged for many years. The trade winds that originally brought sailors from distant lands to the island are an important part of the island life and all on the islands are governed by the tides and the moon.

Life in Lamu has a distinct Arab-orientated flavour with ladies scurrying around the town and back streets wearing brightly coloured kangas or buibuis. ( black cloaks which cover them completely) The maze –like alleys are busy with craftsmen, fabric shops, curio shops, art dealers and coconut vendors and the market square is filled with the smell of spices and freshly caught fish. There is a laid back charm with children playing in the streets and old men sitting on their front door steps watching the world go by.

I have always enjoyed my visits to Lamu with the hints of medieval mystery and romance that have been associated with the island. It has had its fair share of travel warnings because of security in the region and that has always impacted tourism. Just when things settle down and tourists start returning then another issue rises, this time the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic which has caused a major setback for the hospitality and travel business.

On my last visit I found a little gem called Kijani hotel in the village of Shela which was a simple fishing village about 30 years ago and is now a favourite spot for holiday homes and some beautiful small hotels. Most of these homes have maintained the traditional Swahili architectural design and are constructed of coral and mangrove wood. The maze of sleepy lanes with high walls lead to mosques and coral clad or whitewashes houses.

Let me retrace my steps to when I discovered this endearing place just a few months before the pandemic lockdown ……….

We hopped off the boat at the small dhow harbour near the lively little waterfront of Shela village which is located on the south eastern corner of Lamu Island. Within minutes of docking our small boat puttered away again, leaving us to be welcomed by the resident dog and a friendly gatekeeper who tossed our luggage onto his shoulders and led us up the beach.

A few steps away we entered a beautifully carved, traditional door which was framed by sweet smelling frangipani bushes. Stepping through that door was like entering another world. I felt as if I was walking into a secret garden filled with swaying palms, green lawns and vibrant red, pink and orange bougainvillea bushes. It was like arriving at a peaceful, green oasis at the end of a long, hot day. The sparkling blue swimming pool invited us to cool off as the heat and humidity was debilitating. Cheerful smiles and a warm welcome with refreshingly cold coconut juice served in fruit shells soon revived us.

This delightful little hotel made from three traditional houses has private spaces and elegant retreats in the shade of the giant Kunazi trees, with small tables and chairs scattered under the profusion of palm trees or on the terrace that faced the Indian Ocean. Kijani which means green in Swahili has a tropical garden of indigenous plants and trees with antique Portuguese lamps that swayed in the white archways. The spacious bedrooms with Swahili décor and ochre coloured bathrooms all have unique views and are filled with hand-made replicas of furniture, lanterns and ornaments that graced houses of Lamu’s past.

I enjoyed relaxed dining at the rooftop bar and restaurant which has been relocated to the upper terrace giving spectacular views of the Taqwa channel. The rooftop area, that was originally a furniture storeroom and area used for drying linen, has been converted into an open air terrace restaurant and comfortable bar area. Set high up amongst the tree tops the tender breeze helped me forget the heat. It is one of the few places where alcohol can be served in Shela and also doubles as an art gallery.

Although on the waterfront the hotel is not on the beach but it is only a short, pleasant stroll along a narrow walkway which threads its way to the beach. The 12km long, wide sweep of pristine white sand is backed by sand dunes and an isolated sunbathing spot can be guaranteed.

This little retreat has an intriguing history which is worth sharing.

It is set in three separate former private houses. The houses which shared a courtyard garden were designed by Bunny Allen for some of the eccentric travellers who were intrigued with Lamu Island. He was passionate about transforming ancient ruins into beautiful homes using the typically Swahili architectural influences. Bunny Allen came to Kenya in 1927 and during World War 11 served in the King’s African Rifles and fought the Italians in Somaliland. After the war he established himself as a safari guide and one of the last legendary professional, “white hunters” and assistant to Denys Finch Hatton. He spent most of his notorious life in East Africa and eventually retired to Lamu where he became a well-known architect. His signature styles of houses were designs of Moorish arches, Arabic –style shutters, large Swahili timber doors of Omani and Gujarati character and rooftop rooms and terraces. He remained in Lamu until his death in 2002 aged 95 years.

In 1984 one of the houses was purchased as a holiday home by Pierre Oberson, a Swiss fashion designer from Milan who liked to escape to Lamu a few times a year. He was so enchanted by the remoteness and peace of Lamu that he eventually moved to live in Shela permanently. He gradually bought the neighbouring two houses and converted all three houses into a hotel which opened in 1989.He wanted to revive the tradition of stone Swahili houses and to provide an authentic retreat for visitors to experience Lamu’s past. It took him many years to complete the renovations using only traditional methods and materials in the restoration. Pierre went to great lengths to decorate Kijani with Swahili antiques and handmade replicas of furniture, lanterns, ornaments, and utensils that graced the stately house of Lamu’s past. Most of the antiques and furniture were found in Shela and Lamu Old Town but many treasures, plates, clocks and lanterns were brought back from Zanzibar by dhow. The reception area today still boasts the century-old Goldenberg safe and the exquisite pendulum clock which somehow made its way from Vienna to Lamu.

Pierre Oberson welcomed guests to his peaceful retreat for 30 years. He sold the hotel in 2017 and has moved off the island but is still remembered as a charming and welcoming host.

Now the world suddenly changed with the Coronavirus pandemic affecting almost every country in the world. There is no sugar-coating it - things are tough out there but travel is not dead. It is a rough time but people will want to travel. Things will come back in stages but maybe not be as before which may not be a bad thing in all cases.

Domestic travel may be Lamu’s saviour as people dip their toes back in to test the waters. People may decide to try minimal contact travel where they don’t have to stay in busy hotels and crowded public places. It is never the less of great concern to everyone as international travel may not see a comeback until a vaccine is developed.

With this in mind, the managers have decided to embark on not only basic renovations but have undertaken major plumbing and reroofing projects .When they took over the hotel they did all they could to just revive the old place but as it needed a lot of investment they are now renovating the functional services in the hopes that the future will be successful.

Despite the lack of tourists they have decided to add another rooftop bedroom that will have a prime, undisturbed sea view. In addition to renovating, another exciting project they have undertaken is the building of a Mozambique style dhow. Lamu has been known for centuries for its dhow building craftsmen and the talented craftsmen have embarked on building the dhow which will be used to sail future visitors to the special places around the archipelago. At a time when the small community has no income, this little establishment is employing a variety of craftsmen, artisans, gardeners, labourers and giving work to donkey owners to transport building materials. Their confidence in the future and the projects currently under way also help to keep the community fed and boost morale. On top of this they are eagerly supporting community projects of beach clean-up, waste collection and recycling.

It can be hard to look ahead when all has come to a grinding halt but people will be looking to travel when there is light at the end of the tunnel. Despite all the work done to revive this little Swahili retreat with its history of times gone by and now with no guests and a closed hotel, it is gamble to spend money knowing that personal finances will be battered, making affordability a crucial part in how many people start travelling again and how soon.

No one knows what lies ahead or what travel will look like when it does return. Flying blind in the season of Coronavirus is a risk taken by few and so it is inspiring to witness such courage and confidence.

This little Swahili haven is small and exclusive with plenty of places to retreat to so they hope that after weeks of living apart and when the time comes that you will join them when travel again becomes possible.

This too shall pass Old Persian proverb.

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