They say you cannot know where you are going unless you know where you are coming from. The abandoned town in Lamu presents a scenic opportunity to do just that
“Wenyeji wa Shela huja hapa kuomba mola alete mvua. Wanaamini ukiomba hapa, maombi yako yatasikika, (…People from Shela island come here to pray for the rains. If you pray here, your wishes will come true)” said the charming Ali Simba, the curator of Takwa ruins while pointing at the pillared tomb of a revered sheikh.
To this day, the people of Shela travel all the way to Takwa ruins, the remains of a once thriving Swahili settlement situated on the south side of Manda Island, Lamu county in the coastal region of Kenya twice a year to ask the gods to send them rain whenever there is drought.
This is because the tomb is believed to have an inscribed block that calls to Allah and the four caliphs with a date corresponding to the year 1683.
As a history lover, I had been yearning to come and visit these ruins from the first day I set foot in the Lamu archipelago. I had read about this once thriving Swahili town, which was deserted due to lack of water in the first half of the 19th century in archeologist Thomas Wilson’s eye opening book on the place.
I had been pacing up and down the entire morning, calling Captain Farry Mudhafar just to confirm whether the tides were high enough to be taken to the ancient city. At three o’clock, he picked me up at Lamu old town and we began the approximately 45-minute journey.
However, since the tide was still low, it took us nearly three hours just to get there with the speedboat. We couldn’t take the risk to walk all the way being quite a distance. Captain Farry, a tall well-built Barjoni man with baby locks on his head, sacrificed his entire afternoon to esnure that I got to there, showing you the warm-hearted nature of the people of Lamu.
Along the route, we see men dig for coral in the quarries and chisel the hard rock into building blocks for construction. We wait a while for the waters to rise as Captain Farry narrates to me about living life as a Bajuni in Lamu.
“We call ourselves Wabajuni and we speak Kibajuni. We mostly practise Islam and are mostly fishermen,” he tells me as he checks the ocean level.
History indicates that the Bajunis principally inhabited the small Bajuni Island. They trace their origin to various groups like the Khoisanoid, the coastal Bantu and later on, the Arab and Somali immigrants.
Captain Farry quickly speeds off as soon as the waters rose to get to a sturdy raised walkway above the mangroves. It all seemed like a movie to me; I was the relic hunter looking for a hidden ancient town. We found Ali, a charming old man who has looked after the ruins for the past 20 years, waiting to take us through the ruins with rich history.
Sandwiched between the creek and the open Indian Ocean, Takwa was once an opulent little sultanate that is said to have been approximately five hectares in size.
Records indicate that these ruins, situated on the southern corner of Manda, were probably forsaken due to lack of water in the first half of the 19th century. Another town that suffered the same fate was Manda. It is said that the inhabitants of both islands, resettled in Lamu old town and Shela village.
Takwa cannot be viewed from the ocean and this safeguarded it from attacks by enemies. After paying the Sh100 fee at the gate, Ali ushered us through what looked like a village though it seemed it didn’t have a lot of residents living there.
We walk further past the humongous baobab trees and into a path leading us to a limekiln. The lime was created by burning heaps of coral over cylindrical piles of wood that came from the mangrove forest. It was thereafter employed to make plaster for construction.
We walk further to a place with an unusual and striking pillar rising from the centre of its north wall. This is the great Mosque of Takwa, a reflection of the historical significance of Islam in the community.
Outside the mosque, we move to the east and find a well-built conduit and cistern system for ablutions before prayer. Next to the exterior of the cistern, we see the remains of coral foot scrapers which were in the past employed to clean the feet before the faithful entered the mosque.
“The Arab traders used to come to this place to trade with the inhabitants,” Ali said as he pointed to Dagaa graffiti on the wall where etchings of sailing dhows, ships and daggers are partly visible on the crumbling lime plaster on the outer wall.
We walk past giant baobab trees and arrive at coral structures that look like protection walls. Ali tells us that the town had four main gates. Presently, one can only view two gates; one to the south to Kitao and the other at the north, easing communication with Manda.
The Takwa ruins were first excavated in the year 1951 by James Kirkman. Later in 1972, under the supervision of James de Vere Allen, the then curator of the Lamu Museum, the site was cleared again.
The National Monument gazetted the ruins in the year 1982, making it a pleasant picnic site as well as an overnight camping destination for visitors. Some of the ruins are a bit indecipherable with some almost completely reduced to dust, but all in all the place reeks of deep rich history.