Lamu Island, a paradise that feels frozen in time. Not that change has not happened here. Walking with my friend Swaleh I am given a history lesson regarding the shift of sands even here, in this land that seems in so many ways so ancient. “This was not here when I was growing up, and this is now gone,” he tells me as we tour his village. In his soft voice he teaches me what is polite to say as we greet folks along the way.
Change is inescapable; it is life, an exercise in impermanence. However, for an outsider who is newly experiencing this island, time seems far away and my consciousness finds it easy to pretend I am in a frozen moment. I realized early that the biggest lesson on Lamu is really to just be still! First of all the heat is oppressive and so stillness becomes a priority in order to breathe. Then there are all the nuances that come from a culture whose common and frequent saying is Haraka haraka haiwa baraka. (Hurry hurry there is no reason for.) There are no cars on Lamu. Only a rare motorcycle or the single three wheeled ambulance of uncertain stability. Other wise there are the donkeys. Beasts of burden to be sure, but definitely citizens of Lamu. I swear on Sundays their whole demeanor changes and the look on their faces seems to say, thank Allah, no work today. No tourists to ride me or rowdy boys to lord over me with sticks.
On Lamu you learn to wait. You wait to cool off, wait for meals to be served, wait for the tide to come in, wait for friends who have stopped paying attention to time, wait for the soul to slow down enough to be fine with the waiting. And then one day you think, wow, where did the last three hours go, and then where did that day go and then the last 3 days. And then you even stop noticing time altogether and it stops mattering how long anything takes because, really what else do you have to do?The older men sit all day in the square in their kiquoys waiting for…. something interesting to happen, or to die, I don’t know, but they are there every day, seemingly content, watching, waiting.
But, as with all things, contradictions abound even on Lamu. There is a flip side to all this waiting and that is the busy drive to survive. At first I took the hustle on the waterfront in stride. I was, after all, new to this place and in Africa in general it is not unusual to be hustled. “Madame, madame”…, “Do you need a boat to Shela?” “Tour of the islands?” “Sunset sail?” “Buy this, buy that”; “thank you so much for supporting me.” After a week it became annoying and I noticed my body language and tone of voice was starting to make me uncomfortable. After another week I shifted for the better realizing that this is literally survival for the people here. Fishing and tourism is life and livelihood and the greater some ones hustle the greater their commitment to the people who depend on them to live. “Hapana asante” (no thank-you) or “baadaye” (later) was my standard reply as I continued on my path to where ever it was I was in no hurry to get to.
When I first arrived in Lamu I felt kind of lost. What do I do here?? No work, no friends at that time, incapacitating heat. My thoughts told me that I should either be back in Uganda volunteering or home with my family. What was I doing doing nothing? So I bought a drawing tablet and some pencils, started memorizing those poems I had intended to memorize and settled into myself.
But life being the interesting and unpredictable thing that it is just waits for these moments when you think you have it figured out, that moment when you say to yourself, this is fine, I am fine, its all fine, I can do this… it is then that it all shifts like sand under your feet. The fullness I was finding in quiet suddenly became full of people.
First, Ole Ann came on the scene. She is solid, intelligent, and very Canadian. Canadians have their own set of characteristics that set them apart, two of the most obvious to me have been the drive to work hard and party harder. She is a friend of my sons from Canada and is, like him, returning to Lamu and this very house that they and other friends stayed in while here two years ago. Ole Ann is an Amazon, tall and exquisite. She can party like one of the boys and is still such a girl. She drinks most of us under the table, probably all of us actually. She is a beautiful person with boundless energy and a lot of soul. One day Ole brings us Heather who is here from England. Heather is hanging out waiting to head to Sudan (I think) to start work. She pretends to have a hard shell that she feeds with a sharp whit. It doesn’t take long to see she is only protecting the soft heart she tries to hide within. Over the time together I watch her inner and outer self meld together and witness her find a new fluid freedom. Her outer shell softens and like the rest of us here, she is shifted and shaken, and gleaned like shaft from wheat. I watch these amazing women and myself as we are pared down to our real selves in this ancient world. Where our consciousness starts with the early morning Muslim call to prayer and ends with a star filled sky reflecting off the sleeping wooden dhows floating quietly upon the water. There are others here. Musini, who is a local and is the captain of our favorite dhow, takes us on many magical sailing trips. Satan, originally from Nairobi, now working at the orphanage teaching the kids how to play basketball, wind serf, and be whole. Over the course of the 6 weeks we lived on Lamu I met so many interesting people, some locals, some visitors like us. Some I will stay in touch with, others I may never see again. The amazing house we are staying in is owned by a man from Denmark named Per. It was nice to get to meet him when he came for a week. He is gracious and seems unfazed by the group of strangers filling his house. And of course my incredible son Sequoyah who started this trip with me almost four months ago. And Millie, Swaleh, Rojab, the Shela boys, Musini’s crew, Peace corp folks…
My quiet days of drawing and poetry turned into nights of music, dancing, bon fires and drumming. I watch as Ole Ann, Heather, and I shift from our personal comfort zone and relax into the spirit here. This shift was most apparent in our dancing. I witnessed our dancing morph from the, not terrible but not free, movements of back home, to the free, provocative, sensual movements that in my mind have come to represent African women. African women flow with strength and grace through a world that is full of challenge, struggle and beauty. I felt like we were becoming expressions of this spirit. I felt like we were turning into African women. Which of course intellectually I said was absurd but in my heart I knew was true. The music itself was many things, African, hip hop, Bob Marley…the music was not the point. The point was that we became movement itself in this wild and alive place. It was a part of the magic that manifests here, in the cracks of stillness, in this pause of Lamu. In this moment I felt like God was having such a good time living in a body through me.
And then there was the sailing! The wooden dhows have their own soul, own personality, each. They all have their own saying too painted on their sides, “I am not lucky, am blessed,” “Like same people everywhere” “Freedom,” “Beauty is the butterfly,” and Musini’s dhow, “I am not afraid of storms.” These sailors and fishermen who where born here blow my mind. They swim from babies and can swim across the channel from island to island like it was nothing. They easily swing the sail across the bow of the boat to catch the wind and tack across the water. It took a lot of strength for a few of us to pull the sail working together; usually it is just one doing the work. No wonder these men are so strong. They seem to think nothing at all about fishing without poles using line only. They bathe in the ocean and sleep on the dhows.They know the tides and the wind intimately.
And of course the food here is amazing. Mango, passion fruit, banana, pineapple trees grow everywhere. I ate fresh fruit every day. Ole and Musini are great cooks and thanks to them we ate fresh fish and curried dishes with fresh coconut milk almost daily.
In a short time here in Lamu I was as a fish hooked. This raw hot stillness had captured my heart, my soul. Leave?? I have called Africa my home for almost 4 months and had almost forgotten that I was away from home and loved ones. I was as a sail on the horizon at sunset, doing just what I was supposed to be doing, simply, beautifully, and purposefully. What else was there? Where else would I be if not in Africa? Who else was I but this? Who am I now after I learned that I was not who I thought I was? And now I go home to the place that is being held by my loved ones. Like a bookmark holding the place in a story that has already been told.
And of course none of this was true and all of this was true.
I am a wreck when my son and my new friends drop me at the airport to fly home. The man at the counter starts to tell me that my carry on bag is too heavy but loses all courage, as any good man does at the tears of a woman, and nods me through despite dimensions and weights.
Leaving Lamu, leaving Africa, felt like my arm was being ripped off slowly. I cry all the way home and grieve as if I had left a lover that I will never see again. I heard someone say that leaving Africa will make even a grown man cry. Now I sit here in my beautiful, comfortable home with my amazingly patient and loving husband and the best family and friends anyone could have and I am in mourning. I feel selfish and sad and less grounded than I have in many years. I wonder what spell has been cast on me?? There is a definite belief in witchcraft in Africa and now I know I have been bewitched. Where is the antidote that will bring me back to myself? What did Africa do to me while I wasn’t looking? I remember thinking 6 months ago that I was going to Africa to be changed.
We all know that saying, be careful what you wish for.