In Lamu, there’s no hurry
By Peter Muiruri | March 3rd 2016
“Don’t call me Aswif. Call me ‘Captain I Will be Back’,” a dhow operator says above the sound of water lapping at his vessel’s hull. This is Asif Omar, 29, a dhow operator in Lamu. Asif is one of the people you could say know the heartbeat of this town of 14,000 people.
What comes to mind when Lamu is mentioned? An island steeped in deep history? Slow pace of life? Lack of modern means of transport? Lamu combines these and much more.
I visited Lamu for the first time five years ago. I had arrived on a Friday evening, took a speedboat to the southern end near Kipungani and spent a night. The following day, I took the same speedboat to Manda Island and then a flight back to Nairobi.
Fast-forward to February 2016. A whole night’s journey on a bus took us to Malindi, then took a 25-minute flight to Lamu.. By “us” I mean four other journalists from Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi who were in Kenya to familiarise themselves with our local tourism products.
After a day in Malindi, we took to the skies for the 25-minute flight to Lamu. Here, time stops. The adage “there is no hurry in Africa” takes on a real meaning. From the airport, a handcart pushes our luggage through the crowded jetty to the dhow. Such dhows have operated on these waters for the last 1,000 years.
The dhow heaves and sighs with her human cargo and the luggage. Saidi Athuman sets it on a straight course towards Shela, his long, orange coloured beard fluttering effortlessly in the wind. Athuman is a veteran in this business and one of my new acquaintances here. He has traversed the Lamu archipelago for the last 45 years. Now in his 70s, he shows no signs of quitting.
Our first stop is Peponi House, originally built in the 1930s and run by the Korschen family as a hotel since 1967. After some refreshments, we make a quick tour of the nearby Shela village where the pace of life has remained unperturbed for centuries.
Another dhow ride late afternoon allowed us to engage in what can be termed as a “philosophical banter” with Aswif ‘Captain I will be Back’ Omar, the youthful dhow operator whose witty comments sent roars of laughter across the channel.
I will be back
Why would a dhow operator call himself Captain I will be Back? It all had to do with his educational background. While in high school, Aswif, now 29, would run away from school periodically. Whenever he met the headteacher on the streets of Lamu, he would tell him, “Mwalimu, I will be back to school.”
The teacher would come to class and find the lad missing in action. “Who has seen Mr I will be Back?” he would ask to the laughter of the other students. They would reply: “Teacher, don’t worry... he will be back.” This became his call sign that he is known by almost everyone in the town of 14,000 residents.
This is not just Aswif’s adopted name. The phrase defines his business at sea. Encouraged by an old friend, Aswif learnt the ropes of navigating the dhows. Soon, he acquired his own dhow that he called “I Will be Back” followed shortly by “I Will be Back Two”. Later, a third one came known as “I Will be Back Soon” while the fourth one is known as “I Will be Back for You”.
At first, the story seemed far-fetched. It was like one of those tales narrated by men at sea to while away the long days. “If you don’t believe my story, check the Internet,” he quipped. True, his interview was carried by A24 Media a little over a year ago.
Captain I Will Be Back regaled us with more fun-filled anecdotes of his life at sea. Most of these poked fun at the high and mighty in society who work hard all their lives only to go and enjoy their wealth on the sandy beaches of the Indian Ocean, meeting humble and unassuming people like the captain.
“You Nairobians are a funny lot,” he mused. “You spend all your time in traffic, work hard in offices and then come here to spend all your money on my small dhow, drinking good wine served by a guy without shoes. Is that life?”
“When you go back to Nairobi, please make more money because Captain I Will Be Back will be here waiting for you. You fly here, you drive, or walk, and you have no choice but find me here,” he teased us.
You can spend a whole day listening to the “wisdom” of the captain. His views on life may be comical, but nevertheless truthful. On Saturday morning, we waved him goodbye as the grandfatherly Athuman watched.
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