Words: Georgia Black
Photography: Bielle Bellingham, Seth Shezi, Sandy Bornman and Pieter Bruwer
The magical Kenyan archipelago of Lamu – with its 700-year history and idyllic weather – is the perfect place to gather and retreat.
Hands up if you’re always striving – continually signing up for new courses or half-learning new skills, forever listening to or reading something you think you should know, swallowing fistfuls of nutraceuticals, jamming a social life between the cracks.
Unfortunately, the only way for us – for I include myself in this category – to get off this treadmill-to-nowhere, is to be yanked. God bless Lamu, the tiny, secret archipelago off Kenya’s East African coast, for doing that to me.
As in travel, so in life and I can be hyper-critical. Things often seem just a bit ‘off’. Even at a ‘world’s best hotel’ somewhere beautiful, I often feel an air of despair waiting in the wings. The needle on my travel joy radar can be hesitant to move. But very occasionally, as rarely as falling in love, I connect with a place instantly, deeply, knowingly. Which happened the moment I got onto that small wooden dhow, my boat-taxi, from Lamu’s miniscule airport.
Lamu is one of the last places where you can experience traditional seafaring culture. And I challenge anyone not to be moved by the transportive sight of a white-sailed dhow against the blue sea and sky.
Our destination was Peponi, the legendary beachfront hotel that is the epicentre of Lamu’s Shela village, and which has been run by the Korschen family since the 1960s. At sunset its bougainvillea-shaded terrace overlooking the Lamu Channel is one of the most multi-cultural (yet always discreet) spots in the world, with travellers, Euro aristocrats, digital nomads, businessmen, local boat owners, celebrities, aid workers and Kenyan leaders gathering for a beer or an ‘Old Pal’ (Peponi’s signature cocktail made with vodka, bitters, lime juice and soda).
Shela tourism exists because of Peponi, and up until the owner Lars’s early death in 2014, he could invariably be found sitting at the bar from 11am, drink and cigarette in hand, making anyone who entered feel utterly welcome. Its melting-pot heritage, of course, predates the hotel. Lamu is a jumble of hundreds of years of invaders and influences, including Chinese, Omani Arab, Portuguese, British, Indian, Persian and African, dating back as early as the 14th century. It is also the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Lamu Old Town – a short boat ride or a longer walk through the dunes from Shela – was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 for its rich history and iconic sandstone, lime and coral architecture.
Add to this the perfectly warm weather, pristine deserted beaches and the ‘pole-pole’ (Swahili for ‘take it slowly’) way of life, and it is almost impossible not to feel Lamu’s allure. Critically, its relative inaccessibility is a blessing for all who balk at the idea of it becoming the next Zanzibar. As well as being a striver, I am a seeker of my own reinvention. I spend a lot of time thinking about my next move. When I first visited Lamu, I hadn’t worked for over a year. My business, Littlegig, a 24-hour music festival, had been driven into repose by family commitments (three sons) and the pandemic. I had been adjusting to a life without promotor-anxiety. I had half-heartedly taken up ceramics and cold-water swimming.
And then came Lamu, where just like that, Littlegig Retreats presented itself to me fully formed, with the Lamu Writing Retreat as its first event. Because as much as I loved running a festival with four dancefloors and all the crazy magic that went with it, something different and right for our time was begging to be expressed.
I have always made sense of my world by writing and by bringing people together. My great friend, Sarah Bullen, a talented author and writing coach who has had over 100 books published by writers she has worked with, agreed to facilitate. Travel was still restrictive, cursed by high-stakes Covid tests and cancelled flights, but the next time I arrived at Peponi, it was with 14 writers – male, female, gay, straight, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-60s.
A festival guest once wrote to me, ‘Thank you for using a silk scarf to drag me out of my uninspired coma.’ Ever since then, I have reminded myself that when designing an event, my job is to create that silk scarf. Which requires a delicate weaving of environment and programming.
Early morning swims in the translucent, pale green mangrove channels with Captain Yusuf’s dhow Rockandrolla trailing behind us; Sarah’s group-writing sessions and evening reading of the day’s work; guided walks up and down cobbled lanes and through ancient buildings; dinners under perfect-temperature night skies. It was all optional. Consensus was that it felt mostly unmissable.
Group travel, when it works, is mighty. A part of all of us yearns for the disruption of new energy and new people in new places, and I believe wholly in the transformative joy that springs from a community of new friends. Yet as a writer, I am also deeply drawn to solitude, where I can be and express my true self, without posturing, copying or comparing.
In the words of American rocker John Oates, ‘You have to know when to strike and when to retreat.’ Lamu Writing Retreat will be held at Peponi Hotel from 19-24 September 2022. Daily writing sessions by Sarah Bullen; out-of-the-ordinary Lamu itinerary by Wamuhu Waweru and Georgia Black; Indian Ocean channel swimming and morning yoga at Banana House. Everything optional, everyone considered.
“As a writer, I am also deeply drawn to solitude, where I can be and express my true self, without posturing, copying or comparing.”
The best of Lamu…
Contributing travel editor, Seth Shezi, who was a part of this writing retreat, shares his top things to do.
Yoga at Banana House with instructors Fred or Kelly who lead a strong, soulful practice every morning at 9. @bananahouselamu
Hippo Dhow, by day or night – preferably both. We were as comfortable as kings, eating delicious fish (barbecued right in front of us); the ‘Floating Bar’, which appeared in the middle of the Lamu Channel, was a bonus. Ridiculously recommendable. @hippodhow
Shela Villa Walk. Ask the right people (we were led by the convivial Babu British) and you may get to wander around some magnificent empty villas and imagine your alternative reality. Then visit Aman, Shela’s carefully-considered clothing boutique, owned by South African Sandy Bornman, who has the best Lamu Instagram account. @sandylamu
MaraRaha Village for hours of euphoric hip-writhing in the dunes to brilliant DJs. @mararahavillage
Spotlight on: Wamuhu Waweru…
‘This place is dominated by men, but the women are running the show,’ says Wamuhu Waweru, owner and creative director of the Raha (Joy) group, which includes MaraRaha Village, a bar in the Shela dunes.
Wamuhu is a bohemian, politically aware, spiritually-minded artist and activist. She believes in disrupting outdated thinking: ‘People need to be okay with criticism. Here you’re meant to respect your elders but what if they’re messing up? We’ve got to find a middle ground.’
After leaving Kenya at 16, seeing it as a place of oppression, Wamuhu lived in Oklahoma, Boston and LA. Twenty years later she fell in love with Lamu, bought land and started Africa’s best bar.
‘I’m a joy bringer,’ she says. ‘But I’m also a businesswoman. I believe in sustainability. If I make money, everyone does.’
Littlegig supports women like Wamuhu in the fight against corruption and exploitation. @kime_waka