Feb 05 2009

Lamu by dhow

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 4:58 PM

I left Lamu a week ago and I still can’t get this small island off my mind. Bear in mind that Lamu, which sits off the coast of Kenya near the country’s border with Somalia, has no cars and the preferred means of moving cargo on land are donkeys. Travel by water is preferable to riding a donkey (especially for a man my size), so for a couple of days I hired an Arabic-style dhow, which came with both a captain and 15-horse-power Yamaha outboard motor.  The captain, named Shea for short, is an ebullient native of Lamu who wear his hair in dreadlocks and was supremely confident of his sea-faring skills. One day he took me to explore the neighboring island of Manda, where I wanted to visit the excavated ruins of a “Swahili” trading post, established in the 1700s. From a geographic-historical perspective, Lamu is a kind of mini-Zanzibar and served as a entrepot for traders from the Arabian peninsula. Slavery was legal in Lamu until 1907, but the ethno-racial culture on the island is definitely “Creole.” Nearly everyone is Muslim, and most women wear extensive clothing. The chador is even commonly worn. Captain Shea, like many young men on the island, embraced a kind of Rasta-based Islam. His boat sported a flag of Bob Marley who he claimed once played a concert on Lamu island, which he attended.
I didn’t bother to tell Captain Shea that Marley had died before he was born. After all, the man was my captain, and we had to navigate a tricky shallow channel, lined with mangroves, on the way to the entrance of the ruins, which can only be reached by boat.
The captain remained in with his dhow while I explored the ruins with a guide.
We were gone from a long time, so long that on my return the captain inquired what went wrong. I told him we’d gotten utterly lost in the bush surrounding the ruins. We’d found the ocean but on the way back we lost on our way and kept moving aimlessly.
The captain instantly recognized a familiar problem. “Traveling by boat is often like that,” he said. Then he added that getting lost was good. “Getting lost gives you chances to find things you aren’t looking for,” he said. “How else can you find valuable new things when you don’t know you are looking for them in the first place.”
The wisdom of the young sailor knocked me over. Indeed, while “lost” on Manda island, the guide and I found the ruined carcass of an antelope, killed by a wild animal or by hunters who frequented the area (by the evidence of the many home-made traps we found). The decaying head sported two fine long horns. The guide removed the horns from the rotting bones and we took them away.
I’d never handled such a horn, which instantly intrigued me because of my attraction to certain Congolese fetishes (often made by the Songye tribe) that display small animal horns atop the head of a carved figure.
So when we got back to the boat late and apologized to the captain, he said, “Make no apologies, getting lost is good.” And then delivered his pithy wisdom – the wisdom of a Muslim dhow captain, the master of his own universe, who began as an apprentice sailor at the age of ten. His awareness of the importance of encountering “unknowingness” placed him squarely in the Baconian tradition of science. Camus described the same condition as “persistence” in the face of the absurd. To me, the captain was an existentialist, empowered by a method, born out of existence on an isolated island, and yet shared by many across time and space.

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