Lamu was a famous fort and trading post, and its historical significance led to its protection as a site of global heritage. Shela was just the small Swahili fishing village next door, nestled behind the sand dunes, positioned as the gateway to the Mkanda channel. The relative lack of historical interest in Shela has given it the freedom to adapt and morph overtime, like the sand dunes that protect it. Compared to Lamu, Shela is more wild, seductive, and serene and ripe for exploration.
Shela has morphed from the humble fishing village it was into a secluded haven for travelers who want to locate themselves off the map and on the beach for a while. Some may lament this, however, it does seem like those who modernized it, did so with respect to the timeless Swahili style that has always given Shela its character.
Buildings are tall and slender with high ceilings, to allow breezes to flow through all the rooms, and the windows do not have glass, so the wild ocean air is always circulating through the house. Exterior walls are constructed out of petrified coral, or whitewashed concrete, and roofs are mangrove trunks thatched with palm leafs. True to tradition, doors are ornately carved in Lamu’s unique style, and rooftops are areas for socializing, which is historically where Muslim ladies could converse with neighbors without having to leave their houses.
Modern elements complement these historical styles while providing the comfort that today’s travelers relish. Paintings are from local artists, light fixtures are made from sea shells, and one house is constructed using whale bones that washed ashore. Furniture is made from weathered dhow boats, and lounge areas are covered in puffy canvas furniture. In fact, the new architecture is so elegant, that you can imagine it becoming a heritage site one day.
Yet, Shela still retains the quiet character of a fishing village. The heart of activity in Shela, centers around the jetty where the water taxis congregate to take people to Lamu town. It is the only place you are likely to see more than a dozen people. Here, you can find a restaurant to get a cold drink, watch dhows tack by in the channel, and locals repair their boats and mend their tattered fishing nets on shore.
Shela is not the best place to learn about the ancient history of the area, but it is the place you want to stay when you do. Lamu town is just a short walk or a 15-minute boat ride away where you can walk through picturesque windy little streets, discovering little stores and the bustling ports and market. Alternatively, Manda Island is just across the channel, where you can see the Takwa ruins, watch sea turtles hatch and explore the mangroves.
However, the best part about Shela is being located next to one of the best beaches in Kenya. There is a small little beach at the mouth of the channel that is nice enough to draw most people, but those that venture around the cove to the wild open ocean can lose themselves in the scrub of the untamed sand dunes, watch villagers herd donkeys back to town, and ghost crabs scuttle along the sands. It is a place to find your own spot, and reflect on how lucky you are to have it all to yourself.
Shela is the perfect place to relax, read, write, paint, and let the Swahili breezes weave day dreams for you in the dunes. On a clear night you can lay on the roof, staring at the bright night sky and imagine how the same stars have guided Arab and Indian traders there for hundreds of years.
The Swahili fishing village of Shela has managed to modernize while maintaining its historical charm, and while the people of Shela do not fish so much anymore, they are able to lure in travelers from around the world to come experience the breezy Swahili paradise they have created.
Author’s Note: I think the best way to experience this quiet corner of the world, is renting a house with a group of friends, and letting an expert chef cook fresh seafood for you. I stayed with Lamu Holidays, and highly recommend them, especially in the low season when they offer great discounts. For those interested in the area, also check out my blog on the neighboring Manda Island.