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The rich heritage of Fatuma’s Tower on Lamu Island

Shela village is a 10-minute boat ride from Lamu town and though the Island lacks the joie de vivre (enjoyment of life) in the town, the area lies in a small, quiet corner of the island

Harriet James @harriet86jim

I spent a better part of my recent vacation at Coast in Lamu Island. I opted to reside at Shela, a small village situated on the southern part of the island.

Here, I was hosted at Fatuma Towers, an excellent guest house standing below Shela’s towering sand dunes. It takes a 10-minute boat ride from Lamu and despite the fact that the island lacks the joie de vivre (enjoyment of life) in Lamu town, it is a small, quiet corner of the island.

Shela beach is beautifully isolated — not for night clubbers— and being that its inhabitants are Muslims, it is advisable to dress modestly. It is said that the earliest inhabitants of Shella village came from the neighbouring Manda Island.

According to history, in the year 1813, there was the famous Battle of Shela, which was an unsuccessful attempt by Pate Island to overthrow Lamu. Pate Island was allied with the Mazrui clan from Oman and their defeat at Shela consequently resulted in the rise of Lamu as a major power in the archipelago.

Manda, Pate and Lamu are the largest Islands, while Kiwayu and Manda Toto are smaller. Fatuma Towers Guest House continues this theme of history that perpetuates itself in the island.

It was previously owned by Fatuma Abu Bakar, a mysterious Swahili woman who apparently lived in the house with her five female slaves in the 19th century. With the abolition of slavery in Lamu in 1873, the woman’s house fell into disrepair and was abandoned altogether by 1900.

Gillies Turle and his wife bought the place, restored and turned this 300-year-old tower into a ‘house for guests.” Joseph Koi, the manager welcomed me and the first thing I noted was the lack of a receptionist and all that bureaucracy that goes on when you check into a hotel.

A guest house is more or less like being hosted in another person’s home. The family of the owner of the house resides here too and there is a well trained staff ready to take care of all your needs.

While every room tends to be the same in a hotel, rooms in this guest house are spacious and it feels like living in a big house. My room was spacious too, furnished with necessities such as a solar hot water, fans (Lamu can get hot) and mosquito nets together with en-suite bathrooms.

The décor was authentic, keeping with the island’s Swahili culture and environment. The accommodation comprises three separate buildings; a garden Cottage with two rooms; the Tower which has five rooms as well as the Sandcastle which has three rooms suitable for families or a group of friends.

If you are intending to have a longer stay in your destination, the guest house would be perfect as it is cheaper compared to a hotel. The guest house offers yoga training and facilities, with various books on yoga which I was curious to study in preparation to my yoga class that evening.

Fatuma’s Towers boasts of having the first custom yoga hall in East Africa and offers daily afternoon lessons and regular yoga retreats. Although not obligatory, the retreat suits groups looking for a more meditative holiday well.

Auhan Mohammed, a native of Lamu who traces his ancestral roots to Fatuma Abubakar, the Swahili lady who once owned the guest house, was my yoga instructor. The yoga hall which is 50 square metres has plenty of space that can host 15 participants.

Its windows are similar to those of a mosque to allow steady but not direct sunlight and to collect the wind easily. I spent the hour working out my muscles; taking in deep breathes which I must admit was a tough experience being that it was my first time. I left the session energised and relaxed for my meeting with Gilles.

A yoga guru himself, he has been practising yoga for 30 years and helped me understand this discipline further. “Yoga is neither a religion nor a cult, but a tool to help us get in touch with our inner selves,” explained Gilles. “There is no TV, newspaper, no shoes here as it is all part of the wellness lifestyle.”

In addition, various massage and other holistic treatments are available. The beach is just a few minutes away where one can unwind. Apart from the beauty, the good news is that it is secluded, with no beach boys around. I found friendly locals busy harvesting sand with their donkeys.

On meals, great care is taken by the cooks to prepare the freshest local ingredients, combining the best of Swahili and Italian cuisines.

I opted for Swahili chicken served under the stars with night lanterns lit throughout the sandy garden. Freshly baked home-made bread and eggs is served before the first yoga class or when you rise.

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