The Island of Lamu

24 11 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.10.08-9.14.08

Women in black burqas float along the narrow alleyways in clusters. I can’t help but to glance at them and they can’t help but look back at me. I can see their eyes follow me. You don’t have a lot of peripheral vision in a burqa, so their heads turn as I pass.

I am on the island of Lamu, a devoutly Muslim community off the coast of Kenya. The alleyways only allow pedestrian traffic, so donkeys provide the main form of transportation. They carry people and goods: bags of corn, grain, firewood, and building supplies from one side of town to the other. They look better fed than most domesticated animals I have seen in Africa. However, they litter the stone streets with their droppings. As you walk through town, you have to keep one eye on the ground to dodge the donkey landmines.

It is the month of Ramadan. During this time, Muslims fast from sun up to sun down in order to practice patience, humility, and sacrifice. For tourists, that means that only two restuaruants in the whole town serve food during the day (and one is closed on Sundays). But we didn’t come to Lamu for the cuisine, we came to see the culture.

As we walk down the main street of town, I sneak furtive glances through the arched doorways of the mosques, which I am not allowed to enter. Since Muslims pray on mats and not from pews, the men roll their mats out and nap in the afternoon heat as they wait for sundown. If you walk through the main plaza in front of the Old Fort, men and young boys gather around tables and play a local game that looks similar to backgammon.

As sundown approaches, the fasters wait patiently. They hold food wrapped in aluminum foil. As soon as the megaphones cry from the minarets scattered throughout the town, they break their fast. The shops close for thirty minutes or so as the shop keepers join the rest of the town in the streets. People roll out straw mats and share food. We buy fried balls of dough, potatoes, and samosas from the food stalls and eat in the streets with the rest of the town.

As I watch the festivities, I notice that only the men are participating. A few women sell food in the main square, but very few women are in the streets. I generally see groups of women shopping at night, when I am walking back to the hotel after checking email. Each time we pass a group of burqa clad women, I stop to wonder. The thin layer of cloth covering their faces can either be a personal decision or a prison.

When I visit predominantly Muslim communities, I wear long skirts and long sleeved shirts, even if it’s a million degrees outside. As a woman traveler, I have a different experience when I walk around town with Chris than I do when I walk alone. I have never felt threatened, but when Chris is not with me, I notice that mens’ gazes linger. They approach me more often to ask if I need to charter a boat, a city tour, bus tickets, or any other number of things a traveler could possibly need. They simply start conversations. As soon as I mention that I’m in a relationship, they stop talking to me as abruptly as they started. When I walk around town with Chris, it is like I don’t exist. Any business transactions are directed at him, even if I’m buying the  item. I have to admit, I have taken advantage of the situation. When touts try to sell me a tour or take us to a hotel, I simply point to Chris and say he handles all the financial decisions. I walk happily down the street, while Chris is swarmed with people trying to earn commission off us.

Some women choose to cover their faces and hair because of the freedom they feel. After travelling through Africa, I understand the freedom on annonimity. While I struggle to understand the burqa tradition, I am not naieve enough to think that my culture is any better. Western women spend hours obsessing over their bodies, scrutinizing their flaws, and wondering how other people are judging them.  As a teacher I become saddened and frustrated as I watch my students grow from fifth grade to twelfth grade. Their shorts get shorter and their necklines reveal more.  Parents often support uniforms because they say it brings a level of equality. Many Muslim women support burqas for this same reason.

Travel often creates more questions than it answers. I can’t ask these women why they wear a veil. They seem unapproachable to me. When I see them looking, I smile, but I have no idea if they smile back. They float through their lives as I wander through mine, but throughout the day we all dodge the same donkey shit.



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