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PASSAGE TO THE PAST
Robert F. Jones
February 08, 1982
From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway
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February 08, 1982

Passage To The Past

From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway

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It's possible to drive from Malindi to Lamu, the northernmost town of consequence—possible but not recommended. The road threads the delta of the great brown Tana River, and the slightest spit of rain can turn the roadway into an impassable morass. Shifta—heavily armed irredentist raiders from Somalia—still interdict the road, and while we were there stopped a bus near Witu and robbed the passengers. So we flew to Lamu.

Founded as far back as the 10th century A.D., Lamu is the purest of the old Arab towns on the Kenya coast. The people for the most part are pale-skinned, beturbaned Omani types, and the streets resound to the clangor of Arab cottage industries. Door carvers chip and saw like a nest of carpenter ants, metalsmiths pound out gold and silver ornaments, great piles of mangrove poles—used in construction up and down the coast—stand along the quays awaiting the dhows that will carry them as far north as the Red Sea. The smell of charcoal and open drains pervades the narrow winding streets around the old fort, built in 1821 and now serving as a prison. Down the quay from Petley's Inn and the Lamu Museum, shipwrights are putting the finishing touches on the hull of a new dhow—a giant of a ship, fully 100 feet long. The whole town will take part in its launching, which will entail hauling the ship by hand down to the water. Smaller dhows and jahazis cruise the harbor day and night. No motor vehicles are allowed in Lamu, which is situated on an island of the same name; all traffic is either by boat or on foot.

My accommodations at the Peponi Hotel, a short dhow ride from the town of Lamu, were called The Palace—an old, renovated suite of rooms that was once the home of an Arab merchant. From the back window I could see the minaret of the Friday Mosque, one of the oldest on the island. Each morning before dawn I would be awakened at the sound of the muezzin climbing the steps to the minaret. He suffered greatly from catarrh, and his hawking and spitting echoed out over the sleeping town like the voice of a sick raven. But then, miraculously, would come his call to morning prayer: "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar." Pure and clear and as old as Islam.

One morning, as if in answer to the muezzin's call, I heard a howl—faint and distant—coming from the island of Manda, just across the channel. Oooo-WEEP! Oooo-WEEP! I recognized it at once from my time in safari camps upcountry: It was the call of a hyena. That day I asked one of the boat boys about it, and he told me, yes, there was a lone hyena on Manda. There had been two, but one died. Now the survivor called each night, and got no answer.

That evening I heard the hyena again as I lay in the coffee-scented dark. Suddenly, I felt a wave of nostalgia for the cold, high country of the interior, the camps and the smell of raw meat and gunpowder, the chill of rain and the pounding of the high, dry sun of the Northern Frontier. Yes, the coast was fine for a change—hot and humid, bright and rich with exotic foods, glamorous with its Arab past and its tourist present. But for me, Africa will always be the up-country, the night cry of the hyena.

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