Not so long ago I went on a yoga retrait to Lamu.
Situated up North, towards Somalia, Lamu is -together with Manda and Pate- one of the main islands of the Lamu archipelago just offshore Kenya in the Indian Ocean.
Although I believe we all need it, I still have mixed feelings about going away without my kids. This time I was determined to leave any mom guilt behind -hey I could be going to another sort of festival like Burning man – wich I would absolutely love but I’m too afraid not to survive… So my harmless little four day escape was doing yoga in Lamu and I was going to inhale and exhale and enjoy every second of peace and quiet.
L’Afrique, c’est chic
Lamu is without a doubt Kenya’s most authentic Swahili pearl. It’s a medieval labyrinth of narrow streets where cars are banned and donkeys rule, where houses are made out of coral stone and mangrove timber, where beaches are deserted and traditional sailing boats – Dhows- navigate the warm deep blue water.
The first time I visited this magical place was in March 2019 and I instantly fell in love. Lamu is just so different. I couldn’t compare it to anywhere else. Far away from everything I knew, visiting Lamu transported me into another world, to ancient times and long forgotten traditions.
Unlike most other Swahili settlements which have been abandoned along the East African coast, Lamu has continuously been inhabited for over 700 years. Traders and sailors of various countries and religions have made this island so diverse.
The intriguing thing about Swahili culture is that it isn’t a single culture or a way of life, it is yet a mixture of traces from European, African, Arab and Asian traditions. Though it’s clear to see that the Arabian influence was dominant, it’s fascinating to wonder which elements from which cultures stood the test of time contributing to this rich mix of history.
Most definitely I am not the only one who adores this hidden gem. In the late eighties and nineties celebrities like Kate Moss, Madonna, Jude Law, Sting and Mick Jagger enjoyed holidaying in Lamu and Princess Caroline of Monaco still owns a spectacular beach house. The inspiring beauty of this island made contemporary arts dealer -and Roald Dahl’s nephew- Nicholas Logsdail open up the Factory in Lamu town, a place where artists can stay. Anish Kapoor reportedly loves the place and made some work there. Pretty cool.
I have to admit that the last three years socializing wasn’t very high on my agenda. A few days before leaving, a scary thought entered my mind: what if this yoga festival was going to be a social event where all participants need to become one big group of happy new healed friends? Shivers went down my spine and I started wondering how I could be safe from sweaty hugs from strangers. Some silly ideas crossed my mind like wearing a T-shirt saying “I don’t speak English” or putting up a fake Russian accent. How inappropriate… From mom guilt to social guilt, and I wasn’t even there yet.
Anyhow, the prospect of a few days of golden beaches, girls talk with my dear childfree friend and most of all some uninterrupted nights of sleep made any fear fade away.
This little light of mine…
On a sunny Wednesday morning a short flight in a small plane took me from Wilson to Manda airport, which is not much more than a large bus station.
To my relief I noticed that most passengers who checked in their yoga mats didn’t look like random huggers. Together with my friend who was on an earlier flight, I jumped into a charming wooden taxi boat named Cinderella. Our destination was Shela village, the beach side of Lamu where 12km of untouched sand starts. While we enjoyed the view of Lamu town from the water, other taxi boats “Lady Gaga”, “Las Vegas” and “I’ll be right back” cheerfully zoomed by us.
This years theme for the Lamu Yoga Festival was “Shine your light” and the program looked impressive: a huge variety of classes from traditional Vinyasa and Yin over Afro fusion to blindfold, trapeze, aerial silk and SUP yoga spread over 20 different places given by over 35 experienced teachers from around the world. Numerous workshops took place focusing on body care, nutrition, mental and physical healing, authentic connections and mind-heart alignments.
I liked the idea that there was a program but I liked the freedom to select from it even more. I chose my classes carefully (I didn’t want to overdo it) in function of the nicest places like Dhow house, Kijani rooftop, Moon house and of course the garden of the legendary Peponi hotel.
At the start of our first yoga session the teacher asked if anyone had an issue with being touched. My heart started to beat really fast and I wanted to ask if this meant touched by the teacher or by others? If the touching was only in function of the essential oils the teacher had in front of her? I looked around me for answers. A young girl smiled at me, she was covered in tattoos and her long white braided hair fell over her fragile shoulders like albino snakes, I briefly smiled back and turned my head towards an elegant Kenyan man in lotus position who had his eyes closed. I looked next to me, a true Indian beauty staring into infinity, in total peace with herself. Everyone seemed so confident and no one payed attention to the question so I decided to close my eyes and stay silent. In the end I was happy I did. It was a great session, the teacher briefly touched the palms of our hands with some divine smelling oils. I was glad I kept open to it.
In Lamu structures are built high for maximum coolness and the best thing our simple hotel had to offer was its striking panorama. We overlooked gracious white Swhahili houses and rooftops of thatched makuti where massive pink bougainvillea cascaded from. Our view could reach all the way over the water, beyond sand banks to where the mangroves start.
Although the mosque woke me up at 4.20am and I started scrolling through pictures of my two babies, it just felt amazing being able to stay in bed. Since I didn’t spend full days doing yoga, I had plenty of time to swim in the ocean and walk around the island. I bought some decoration made out of driftwood from a local fisherman with the most captivating green eyes. This brings me to the fact that this island looks so intriguing largely because of the spectacular looks of its inhabitants. Lamu is home to all kinds of skin tones and characteristics. I saw eyes ranging from hazel, blue, green to dark chocolate.
Strolling around Lamu’s small winding roads with my flipflops sticky of donkey poo I discovered that everywhere I looked was like a snapshot with at least one element of beauty. A nice game to play is selecting a top 5 of Lamu’s prettiest doors. Most houses are quite basic, some of them even ruinous but they often have absolutely stunning doors, doors to the soul of a family. As if all the effort went into the door and there was no budget left for the rest. Like an average face with an exceptional pair of eyes.
I kept on wondering what exactly made this place so unique? Maybe it lies in the contrast between dirt and beauty? Or the rare merging of African intensity with profound tranquility?
Rethink – heal – let go
One afternoon we signed up for SUP yoga, indeed that is yoga on a Stand Up Paddleboard. I am totally aware I could have easily predicted I was going to feel uncomfortable doing this in a tight bathing suit. Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking. It only took me until the cat cow position to realise this was not ok. Men who are used to see their women totally covered were now gathering on shore to watch us -muzungu’s- doing yoga on a sup in body hugging outfits… I dived into the water to put on my shorts and tshirt and felt relieved when this session ended.
The longer I was on the island, the more the contrasts started playing up in my mind. When I crossed women in traditional Islamic dresses and face veils (known locally as buibui) with little girls not much older than my daughter completely covered from head to toes, I couldn’t help but worry about women’s rights.
Or those adorable donkeys who used to make me smile now flooded me with pity. I got upset when I saw workmen overloading their poor backs and hitting them hard with sticks. I gave some donkeys bread and water after I saw them eating old cardboard. But then I got confused when I was walking to get on a Dhow for sundowners. My heart melted when I saw a man washing a donkey in the ocean as if he was bathing a big child, in the most caring and tender way.
I started wondering to what degree we -foreigners- are allowed to ask questions about traditional lifestyles? When can we speak up for tradition to move on in order to progress, in order to help and empower the weakest? Who has the right to decide so? It’s not easy to say. I believe it’s also about priorities. If it was to keep my family fed and alive I might most probably also slap a donkey.
Anyway, traditions can be of great value as long if they don’t block necessary improvement. Reading up on the critical shortage of freshwater in this region because of a surging population and underdeveloped water infrastruction (not to mention climate change) made the Pina Colada I was sipping next to a pool taste quite bitter. I tried to suppress the emerging feelings of guilt by what I was taught during yoga: “everything is interconnected”. This island needs tourism, tourists contribute to Lamu’s economy. I went back to buy some more driftwood from the green eyed man.
Talking about tourism, the sector here has suffered a lot. After 2011, when a string of violent incidents traced to neighboring Somalia happened (Al-Shabaab attacks, the kidnapping of a British couple and a French woman) Britain and the US, which provide the biggest number of tourists to Kenya, warned their citizens to stay away from Lamu. The island economy was devastated. Still today, if you are employed by the US government and posted in Nairobi, you’re not allowed to visit Lamu. They don’t take this lightly, you could even lose your job if you would go and they find out. I think this is absolutely ridiculous since the actual threat of danger is minimal. It’s just another example of unfair Africa propaganda. If it’s fine to go to Mexico city, it should be ok to travel to Lamu.
Lamu de soi
During a sound healing session I was rather sceptical when all my fellow yogi’s were saying how relaxed and happy they were feeling. The energy felt different. I started thinking about all the people who came to this festival, their struggles, their unfulfilled wishes, their broken hearts,…
Despite moments of confusion and the huge contrasts, I do believe this island has the ability to absorb the weight of all those worries, with the ocean as its loyal assistant. Lamu is like a wise grandfather: someone serene who truly listens but likes to hide his own vulnerability.
Sitting in the Cinderella towards Manda airport looking at the ocean I was contemplating about my favourite lessons of the past four days: “only you can feel you” and “trust the universe”. Caught up in my own thoughts I hadn’t noticed the woman next to me with dark curly hair waiving from under a cowboy hat. Out of nowhere she asked me: “Did you ever work as a model?” Completely surprised I wanted to say “well yes in an era before Instagram, way before the Kardashians made my body type unpopular, way before I had two babies…” but instead I just said “many many moons ago” I smiled at her and I could feel I was blushing. Happy with the compliment, I realised I almost forgot about that amazing part of my life.
Maybe the biggest lesson of this trip was that we are all constantly changing –“becoming” as superstar Michelle Obama puts it- the trick is to be grateful and to keep working on the elements you like.