Out of this world

In one of his poems Baudelaire argues with his bored soul for whom not even the Parisian life holds any more interest. “Where would you like to go?” demands the poet. “Anywhere, out of this world”, the soul moodily replies.

A hundred years ago when Baudelaire was writing these lines, there were many places that might have served to soothe and invigorate just such a soul – places where one could peer into the window of a world entirely different from the newly industrialized Europe. Today there are not so many left, and most of those that remain have made themselves so conscientiously touristic that they have lost what charm they used to have.

One of the few unspoiled spots is Lamu, and it is very likely that Lamu will remain so for years to come as the only practical way to reach this enchanted isle is by aeroplane. In Lamu you find a vibrant society in a lovemarriage with its traditions: Lamu people are dubious about the merits of what we would term “Progress”.

When a telephone line was established in Lamu some years back, one Arab told me, “Never mind, the elephants on the mainland will soon knock thepoles down.” This does, in fact, periodically occur.

Life in Lamu has a distinctly Arab-oriental flavour; the Lamu ladies scurry down back streets wearing buibuis (black cloaks which cover them entirely) and yet they are prone to shaddowing their dark eyes with kohl and have been known to cast amourous glances from the folds of their buibuis towards favoured admirers. In the Lamu evenings the aroma of thick Turkishlike coffee permeates the atmosphere; old Lamu men sit together philosophizing on the front steps of their houses, and little boys chase one another, darting in and out of quaint shops that line the Lamu main street.

The restaurants of Lamu bustle with business: Bajun Lamu fishermen tell tales to one another while they enjoy heaped plates of rice. Night-time is delighful, and everyone takes advantage of the cool breezes that blow from the Indian Ocean. You may even see the aristocratic sharifs (blood descendants of the Prophet Mohammed) taking a stroll, dressed in long white robes called kanzus and carrying walking sticks. They are as distinguished as the black-suited and bowler-topped gentlemen of Fleet Street; but rather than having stocks and bonds on their minds, they are more likely to have some problem involving the interpretation of one of the Prophet’s sayings.