On the Isles of Lamu – Pate Island

Part 3 of 3

Published 3 June 2017 Saturday magazine Nation media

It’s a dream world.

We sail past a forest of the tallest mangrove trees that l’ve ever seen. Sparkling white sand bars appear in the low tide. It’s an endless blue planet from where we are when suddenly a dolphin slips in and out – too far to tell what species it is.

Captain Lalli, of Kenya Wildlife Service Maya Mangat and Kiki Aarts of Subira House Lamu - picnic at sea sailing to Pate island Copyright Maya Mangat
Captain Lalli, of Kenya Wildlife Service Maya Mangat and Kiki Aarts of Subira House Lamu – picnic at sea sailing to Pate island Copyright Maya Mangat

Towards midday Captain Lalli stops to refuel the tank and produces delicious, juicy mangoes – an impromptu picnic on the ocean.

Sailing on, he points to Faza, then Ndau – once powerful and independent sultanates on the island of Pate. We pass a Kenya Navy patrol dinghy and then get off at Mtangawanda, a tiny ‘port’ so named because it has black sand on its shores.

Until recently, everyone sailed to Pate town through a narrow mangrove channel. Not anymore. In modern times, Pate now boasts ‘boda boda’ and matatus. We bargain with the matatu driver – since there is no dhow coming in for the few hours – he has the upper hand – Ksh 5,000 for a return trip. We get him down to Ksh 2000 and the 20-minute drive across the farms and salt pan gets us to the edge of the old sultanate of crumbling coral palaces, mosques and houses.

It’s surreal re-visiting five years later and walking through the ruins including Yumbe Palace littered with trash.

And then we’re in the upper village – Pate Juu walking through the narrow lanes and houses built of coral rag with new extensions in brick and cement. Children eye us curiously, men make haste to the mosque by ancient crumbling graves in scripted in Arabic.

According to literature, Arabs settled here from 7th century on. The Indians and the Chinese sailed in with their trading dhows and junks. There were shipwrecks – some settled and married the local women. Strolling through the town, it’s interesting to see the descendants who call themselves Bajuni – some looking Indian, some Arabic and some so fair.

By the 18th century, Pate was a thriving trading metropolis where silks were woven, goldsmiths made intricate jewellery and carpenters carved beautiful furniture including the musical siwa – two of which are in Lamu museum. The art of fine living was at its height with music and poetry written in the Kiamu dialect of Swahili in the royal palace of Yumbe. Mwana Kupona, Lamu’s famous poetess of the 19th century hailed from here.

In-fighting between the sultanates saw the fall of Pate – with the famous battle of Shela where the ruler of Pate who was aligned to the Omanis in Mombasa sailed to Shela on Lamu Island to conquer it. He misjudged the tide that left the army high and dry to be slaughtered by the Lamu folk.

lower end of Pate by the mangrove-lined creek with a few dhows anchored and children splashing around. - Pate island Copyright Maya Mangat
lower end of Pate by the mangrove-lined creek with a few dhows anchored and children splashing around. – Pate island Copyright Maya Mangat

We reach the lower end of Pate by the mangrove-lined creek with a few dhows anchored and children splashing around. Walking back, we reach the ‘Portuguese’ part – through narrow lanes again and stop at the house of Bwanamkuu Mohamed Hamdu. It’s a typical house – a single-storey house opening into a courtyard and then the galleries for the men, women and children. The woman of the house is at her Singer sewing machine.

“The house is thought to be five centuries old,” he tells. “The wooden bed is from India and also a few centuries old.”  Two handsomely carved wooden chairs are placed by the column of the outer gallery.

Hamdu escorts us back to the waiting matatu and asks us to follow him to another ruin. “This is the grave of the seven virgins,” he tells. “It’s sacred.”

Bwanamkuu Mohamed Hamdu at the grave of the seven virgins who asked God to divine and committed suicide rather than be defiled when the Portuguese invaded the island about seven centuries agoon Pate island Copyright Maya Mangat
Bwanamkuu Mohamed Hamdu at the grave of the seven virgins who asked God to divine and committed suicide rather than be defiled when the Portuguese invaded the island about seven centuries agoon Pate island Copyright Maya Mangat

The young man was part of the team that excavated part of the site led by a Swedish team of archaeologists. The story around the graves was of the time when the Portuguese invaded the island about seven centuries ago and when on a looting and raping rampage. The seven virgins asked God to divine and committed suicide rather than be defiled.

“We found human bones that when they were tested turned out to be bones of females. But we had to stop excavations because the elders forbade it.”

Back on the boat, we sail through a storm and halt to allow a gigantic Chinese barge sail in from the high seas and across Kilinana Channel and on to the new Lamu port being built. It’s a fast changing world.

Sail to Pate and on to Kiunga National Marine Reserve

Hire a speed boats – can cost anything upwards Ksh 10,000. Sailing in a local dhow is cheap. If you’re lucky and the wind blowing the right direction it can take about three hours or more.

Contact Kenya Wildlife Service (www.kws.go.ke) for advice. Most holiday homes and hotels can organize a day in Pate – and if you really want the isle feel there are a few guesthouses.

The heat can be killing – so be prepared.

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