“Like the shell of a pearl oyster, the rough but resilient exteriors of Lamu houses conceal beautifully ornate interiors. A step beyond a wooden door might lead you through to a sun-drenched inner courtyard, hung with jasmine and frangipani or splashed with tropical fronds… Rooms are arranged around the courtyard, with equal prominence given to indoor and outdoor space. The simple layout is embellished with delicate plasterwork, ceiling friezes, wall niches and carved wooden doors.”

The Independent

One of Lamu’s many glories is its Traditional Swahili Architecture. Lamu’s unique stone townhouses, many dating back to the early 18th Century, are celebrated for their intricately carved wooden front doors, imposing entrance porches and shady courtyards, the grandeur and elegance of their interiors and their beautiful decorative stucco plasterwork.

The traditional stone house is Lamu’s classic building type – found exclusively in Mkomani – the northern and oldest part of the town – a patrician area built and inhabited by wealthy merchants and noble Arab families – many of whose descendants still live in these grand, historic family homes.

They vary in size and form, from relatively modest, single-storey houses to magnificent mansions, but all share a uniformity of design, construction and decoration. Each house follows a universal, centuries-old plan, and consists of a series of richly-ornamented galleries facing northwards towards Mecca. Thick external walls, high ceilings and small windows protect the inhabitants from the equatorial sun and ensure that the interiors are cool, private and secluded.

Of course not every Lamu home can or should be an absolutely traditional and historically accurate stone townhouse – many houses now have makuti-thatched roofs for instance – which were only introduced in the 20th Century. But much of the skill and pleasure of planning, restoring, building and furnishing a house here lies in working within the vernacular architectural style and with traditional local building materials, and in the adaptation and interpretation of time-honoured forms and designs to fit modern day needs.

Building Methods and Architectural Forms

Even though none of the surviving stone houses was built before the early 18th Century, this type of building can be traced back several further centuries. Lamu’s current historic stone houses are often built on top of the ruins of even older houses of similar construction. Many elements of their design are recognizable in ruins dating from the 13th Century and before.

In Lamu – and all along the East African coast – all houses were constructed of coral limestone. And to this day almost all Lamu houses are still constructed from coral – most usually these days in the form of large ‘breezeblocks’ which are mined on nearby Manda Island. It is the ideal building material: light, strong and readily available, it improves with time – becoming harder and more homogeneous with exposure to rain and the tropical sun.

Large chunks of coral stone (coral ‘rag’) were set in a thick mortar of coral lime and sand to build external and internal walls at least 18 inches (half a metre) thick. The outer walls of a house were usually left unfinished – the massive, weathered exterior giving no hint as to its beautiful interior. Their flat stone roofs were made of similar mixture of coarse coral rubble and mortar. Much the same materials are used in modern day construction; but most usually with the addition of concrete and cement into the building mix. And today’s exterior walls are more likely to be finished with white lime plaster, or a more weatherproof combination of lime and cement.

Supporting timbers were usually of strong tropical hardwood (today locally-harvested mangrove poles are often used). These beams were laid close together – usually just 8 to 10 inches (20-25 cm) apart – in order to support the heavy roof above. Each beam had a length of 10 to12 feet (3-3.5 metres); and it was the available length of these poles and the heavy weight of the roofs and ceilings they had to carry that determined the planning and design of every building in the region for many centuries. This has been called a ‘dimensional straightjacket’ to which all built spaces had to conform.

The limited span of the supporting beams meant that houses could only be built as a series of long and narrow galleries, called misaan, each around 8-10 feet (2.5-3 metres) wide. Each gallery ran the entire width of the house and was around four times as long as it is wide. Skillful Lamu fundis almost always managed able to maintain both the north-south orientation of the houses and the elegance and symmetry of their layout, even when they had to contend with irregularly shaped plots.

The width of houses was usually about 30ft (9 metres) longer in the biggest and most patrician of houses – and their length varies according to the number of galleries, which range from three or four in smaller houses to seven or eight in the largest, which could be up to 80 feet (24 metres) long. Their ceiling heights ranged from about 12 to 18 ft (3.5-5.5 metres).

The interior courtyard or kiwanda was the focus of all daytime activity and the source of most of the building’s light and air. Windows were unnecessary, and were usually only incorporated in upper storeys, which were often built on to traditional one-storey houses at a later date. Windows were also undesirable for cultural reasons – they reduced privacy in a society which sought to keep women in seclusion or purdah.

Without the need for external openings, groups of houses were often attached and shared common walls without losing light or privacy. Inner courtyards and the inward orientation of the houses, together with old town’s narrow streets, enabled a very high density of buildings. When members of the same clan or family built houses close to each other, they were often attached or interlinked by enclosed wikio bridges, spanning the street and often running the entire length or width of a house.

The exterior of the traditional stone house is massive, imposing and often completely unadorned – except for the inside of the daka entrance porch to the house, which usually featured a magnificent wooden double front door, with intricately carved surrounds and centre post. Only the daka, with its impressive door, painted ceiling beams and plaster ceiling friezes gave passers-by any suggestion as to the wealth of the inhabitants, and of the elegant and richly decorated interiors that lay within. The daka was also traditionally lined with baraza seats – stone benches where the man of the house could meet casual visitors and conduct business without disturbing the privacy of the family inside.

Traditional Interiors, Decoration and Furnishings

The daka porch led directly into a foyer called the tekani, with the front door facing a blank wall, ensuring again that visitors to the daka didn’t catch a glimpse of the private areas of the house. From the courtyard a double or triple set of square arches, each supported by a massive hardwood beam, led into the series of galleries, the misana, each running the width of the house. The lintel beams were usually inlaid with a series of thin parallel grooves which were filled with white plaster, and the rest of the beam painted in black and red stripes. Today a colour scheme of turquoise, black and white is often used as well.

The function of the galleries was flexible and people lived and slept in the same rooms. Beds were arranged around the misana as required and some privacy could be obtained by drawing the curtains hanging from lacquered miwandi poles at either end of the galleries to create sleeping alcoves. Very often the rearmost gallery was designated as a private bedroom for the mistress of the house – the ndani or harem. Close to the entrance in larger houses there might also be a sabule: a room used by men as a guest or reception room; this room often had shuttered windows opening onto the street.

Traditional stone houses generally had two bathrooms on every floor: the first located near the sabule and the courtyard and used predominantly by the men, and the second located to the rear of the house by the ndani. Each bathroom had a pit latrine and a large stone water cistern filled with water for washing. Tiny fish were kept in the cistern to eat any mosquito larvae that might be tempted to breed there. Often a Chinese porcelain bowl was set into the bottom of the cistern to ensure that enough water remained when the cistern ran dry to keep the fish alive. At a time when Europe still depended on outside privies and chamber pots, Swahili bathrooms were well designed and often beautifully decorated.

The house’s kitchen was in the kidari cha meko, a structure situated on top of the flat roof of the building, ensuring smoke, heat and smells never entered the living quarters. Upper storeys to the house were usually added later, often at the marriage of the daughter of the house, and the ground floor was then used for storage or as storage or servants’ quarters.

The most wonderful decorative aspect of a traditional house was its wealth of elaborately carved stucco plasterwork, which grew in richness and complexity the further one entered into the private areas of the house.

Traditional carved plasterwork took many varied and beautiful forms. Beneath the roof beams there were ceiling friezes in a variety of elaborate symmetrical designs. Around doorways and entrances there were archway friezes – in larger archways these often incorporated rows of vertical niches too. On the east and west end walls of galleries there were panelled-end niches – often in an elaborate and highly-stylised nyota (star) or casa (turtle) design with a display niche at their centre. Most spectacular of all were the whole walls of zidaka niches and surrounding decorative plasterwork found in the rearmost galleries of a house. In traditional bathrooms and lavatories too, the plasterwork was often particularly ornate – often featuring trifoliate arches similar to those found in the qiblas of local mosques.

This plasterwork performed a variety of functions: most importantly it added a sense of perspective, beauty and depth to interiors that might otherwise have seemed very plain and uniform. It was also an important indication of the wealth and standing of the occupants of the house, and the elaborate zidaka niches in particular provided a spectacular backdrop for wedding ceremonies and for the formal viewing of the bride. Niches were also used as storage for the Koran and other religious texts, and for the display of precious Chinese and European porcelain and other ornaments. It is likely too that the plaster decorations fulfilled other spiritual and religious purposes, and were seen as a way of protecting and purifying the house.

Traditional household furniture included the kiti cha enzi (literally ‘chair of power’ – or chief’s chair) – a carved mahogany throne, often inlaid with ivory or mother of pearl, reserved for the man of the house or for important visitors. In the grandest houses, a huge, heavy and beautifully-carved pavilao bed was often used by the principal inhabitants; it was so high that a special stool of bench had to be used to climb into it. Clothes and precious belongings were often kept in large, brass-inlaid ‘Zanzibar’ chests. Small stools of lacquered wood topped with goatskin were used as occasional tables, often supporting a large brass serving tray.

Meals were usually eaten sitting on the floor or a raised baraza dining area, covered with woven palm-frond mats and colourful cushions. Food was served on imported crockery, and coffee poured from large brass pots into tiny porcelain cups. Brightly-coloured cotton was also used to curtain-off sleeping alcoves.

In the 19th Century more Indian-inspired furniture came to feature in Lamu houses, in particular ‘pili pili’ beds featuring elaborate spindle-work headboards, often inlaid with coloured tiles, and Lamu’s skilled carpenters became adept at making colonial-style furniture, including long-armed planters’ chairs.

Further Reading:

  • Planning Lamu; Siravo & Pulver (National Museums of Kenya)
  • Swahili Chic; Jordan (Thames and Hudson)
  • Lamu Town; a guide; Allen (Rodwell Press)
  • Lamu – Kenya’s enchanted island – Beckwith & Fisher (Rizzoli)
  • Lamu – A study in conservation – Ghaidan (East African Literature Bureau)
  • Lamu –  A study of the Swahili town – Ghaidan (East African Literature Bureau)
  • Quest for the past – an historical guide to the Lamu Archipelago (Martin & Martin)