Category Archives: Lamu, Kenya

How to Get Arrested in Kenya (part 1 of 4)

I arrived in Nairobi dressed for Moscow. Literally. When I left the States the second time at 21 I had in my pocket an Around-the-World ticket which put me in Russia visiting the family of Eugene Ostashevsky, one of my closest friends, after a brief visit back to Europe. Kenya was the last stop of my journey after Russia where I intended to leave all my winter clothes. Before leaving Oakland, I had connected with a woman who had a print studio in Lamu, Kenya through a classified ad in an arts magazine so my plan was to set up camp in Kenya until the winds moved me elsewhere.

Russia never happened. Instead, this is what happened. I was in London hanging with a friend when I wandered into the Tate Gallery one cold and dreary day. Weaving my way through the galleries, I landed in front of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. I gasped, startled out of my day-dreaming. I was floored. By the size, by the subject, by the color- blankets of red washed over me, punctuated by the Bacon cry. I decided to go directly to Kenya where I had a working studio waiting for me. I ran at breakneck speeds back to the flat, inspired and moved.

I chunneled back to Paris, collected my things, bought some cheese to offer as a gift (melted) and flew to Kenya wearing a hooded felt parka which my best friend, Jil Cappuccio, had ambitiously sewn for me when she was 20 years old to protect me from the harsh Russian winters and which must have weighed at least 100lbs. I looked like the French Lieutenant’s Woman sulking down the crowded hallways of Charles De Gaulle airport, cloaked in enough felt to wrap a Macy’s float.

A day later, I arrived in Nairobi armed with only the name of the building where I was to meet the person who would shepard me to the island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast. An emboldened and psychotic cab driver admitted he had no idea where the building was but was game for the search. After circling Nairobi for hours I saw the name of the building. I arrived, sweating, carrying my melted cheese and lugging my 100lb coat with me. I rang the bell. Before I could say hello, I was back in a car riding to the air field where I would board the small plane which would fly me to Lamu. My directions? Like a game of Clue, I was only given a name. This time, upon landing, I was told to ask for Joni.

I deboarded to a hoard of young boys each clamoring to take me and my things and sail us all off to Lamu, the neighboring island, on a dhow. I asked for Joni and of course they all knew Joni. Joni was the eccentric American who had lived in Lamu for most of her adult life.

I found Joni up a steep alley in a large stone house. My bags were dropped, I climbed under a mosquito net and I slept for two days. I woke up, Joni fed me, I fell back to sleep. After a week of this, Joni handed me a bill. I walked out the door. I knew I could find my own lodging for less than I paid at Chez Joni and I had very little money to begin with. Off I went, refusing to hire a guide, stirring up trouble as I sashayed through the alleys of Lamu. Friends and foes I made but I soon found myself the tenant of a haunted 3 story roofless stone house built around an open courtyard, tucked away behind massive wood doors, and right up the alley from the two little Somalian girls who would teach me Swahili.

Next: Meeting Norman, My Houseboy (part 2 of 4)

Meeting Norman, my houseboy (part 2 of 4)

Some background on Lamu.
Lamu is an island located off the coast of Kenya. It is a one of the first Swahili towns in Kenya- dating back to the 1500s, and, because of its placement on Arabian trade routes, it is primarily Muslim. The population when I was there was around 12,000. Lamu Town is a hodge podge of village housing mixed with Swahili architecture all linked by incredibly narrow streets through which only people and donkeys pass. There are three types of people that live in Lamu: Muslim women who provocatively wear their burkas to reveal bronzed shoulders, old men who sit around playing Bao into the night, and young Rasta boys or “Beach Boys” with dreads who walk around the island all day, high, fishing, and hustling the few tourists who come through.

Swaleh found me first. Not that it was difficult to do. When I first left Joni’s to find my own place every boy in the village wanted to help me locate my new home for a small finder’s fee. You see, there isn’t anything to do in Lamu and there isn’t any way to earn money. Tourists, travelers, Europeans who land there for a moment provide both entertainment and income. I, however, was 21, impetuous, strong-willed and broke.

So I set out to do this on my own. The house I found was haunted and owned by an Indian, pariahs to the locals as they bought up all the small stores and controlled a majority of the commerce in Lamu. Lodi, my landlord, agreed to rent my house to me for $70 a month until after the rainy season when he hoped more tourists would come and be willing to pay a higher rent. My house had plumbing. It had a hot plate. And it had a toilet. Whose pipes lead to the alley in front of the house.

I was in the market buying food when Swaleh approached. Dapper in red, mid- 20s, hair in locks, deep black skin and married. Savvy Swaleh was married to an American who was back home both sending him money and trying to figure out how to move him out of Kenya to the US with her. Swaleh was a pain in the ass but at the same time, I had little choice. I knew no one except Joni. Swaleh also hated the “boy clans” who wandered the island as he thought himself to be better than them. That soon became an advantage to me and I made friends with them when I needed a break from Swaleh. Swaleh, though, is important to my story because he introduced me to Norman, my houseboy. Norman was the cousin of Swaleh’s houseboy (who is pictured seated in the photo with Barbara as the featured image of this post). Norman was a good kid. Very quiet, a hard worker.

For two weeks, Norman kept my house. Which meant he went to the market in the morning, cooked me chapati, washed my kanga cloths in my newly purchased buckets (only I didn’t wear it like the women in the photos…wore it mostly as skirts or halter dresses when we were feeling very scandalous), and swept my floors with our tiny broom. And me? What did I do? I learned how to make paint with egg yolk and pigment which I used to paint dreadful portraits of the locals. I wrote in my diary. I smoked a lot of pot. Realizing that I could easily add Norman’s chores on to my completely empty day and that my funds were very limited, I decided to let him go.

“Norman, I like you, you do excellent work, but I don’t need you any longer. I’ll give you two weeks pay in advance. Thank you for your excellent service.”

Thinking no more about Norman, I set about living in Lamu.

Next: Chewing khat and a French writer named Philippe (part 3 of 4)

All photos courtesy of Trip Advisor. com – I never travelled with a camera. I wasn’t traveling, I was just living.

Chewing khat and a French writer named Philippe (part 3 of 4)

Living in Lamu. I’ll never forget the first words I learned to say in Swahili mostly because I thought them to be the funniest: Saa ngapi? What time is it?

All the boys walked around the island wearing oversized American-style watches asking each other “saa ngapi?” “what time is it?” when they met. As if it meant anything. Time means nothing in Lamu. When the sun rises, the day begins, when the sun sets, the day ends. And that is how I learned to live.

There was one hotel on the island, Petley’s Inn. I think it was owned by an English couple. There were 11 rooms. Tourists to Lamu stayed at Petley’s Inn when they visited the island. Locals weren’t really welcome nor did they come by except to collect the tips travelers gave them for carrying their bags. When I needed a break from both Swaleh and the Rasta boys I would wander over to see what new tourists were there. They served alcohol but because Lamu was mostly Muslim, it was served discreetly and they frequently ran out. I met Philippe at Petley’s Inn. Philippe helped me escape Lamu after the arrest.

When I wasn’t at Petley’s I was hanging out with the Rasta boys. At night we would all chew khat and walk around the island. If there was an outdoor film being shown (all Bollywood productions that no one understood in Hindi but for the dancing and good love story) then we’d hang out and watch the film played in a field on the island. If there was no film, we’d just walk. Khat was so foul tasting we chewed it with bubblegum. The pink kind with the cartoons. We would chew until the gum lost its flavor. Then we’d spit out the gum, refresh and start all over. We’d chew until our jaws could barley open. Chew and walk, our only light the brightness of the stars and the occasional (very rare) street lamp.

During the day, I’d paint or I’d get high or frequently do both. I’d sit with the Somalian girls and they’d teach me the Swahili words they were leaning and we’d write them on chalk on the stone walls of my house. Lamu was the port for boat loads of Somalians fleeing the war in their own county. Some would stay. Others would move on. You could always tell the Somalian families.

Some part of the day I’d have to go find chapatis since I didn’t cook. Those were harder and harder to come by as news of my firing Norman spread. The German Volunteer Service sent 3 people to Lamu to help the locals learn trades. That’s when I met Barbara, the woman in the featured photo. It was great to have a friend at last and we would stay up late at night and tell each other ghost stories about things we heard happening on the island. To work with the locals, Barbara would travel outside of the village, farther than I would go.

There was another American in Lamu also, Scott. Scott had lived in Lamu for two years learning how to carve dhows when a knife almost cut his foot off. He was back in the States getting surgery on the foot when I first arrived but he returned while I was there. Scott also fell in love with a Muslim girl. During his absence they moved her out of Lamu. Scott crushed, spent time with me before leaving Lamu to find his way some place else on the continent.

Sometimes I’d hitchhike with other travelers and leave the island. I spent three days once with the Masai and once went to Mombasa with Scott before he left.

And then I met Philippe. Philippe was a 38 year-old French movie writer who moved to Shela, the neighboring island, to escape the world of drugs which eventually claimed the life of his french model wife when her heroin habit very sadly evolved into AIDs. However this was not before she tied him up financially with the French government for several hundred thousand francs in unpaid taxes while he was living in Africa. His plan was to open a restaurant in Shela and bring her down to free her of the Parisian chains which tied her. This never happened. She didn’t want to move to Lamu and he ended up getting swindled by the Kenyan government for over $40k in bribes before leaving the country with me.

Things were good with Philippe. Philippe had been on the island for a long time and knew many people. His house was furnished with some European comforts and he made sure I always ate well. We both settled into a cozy little life in his home with our rescued cats and Philippe’s black market ties that made sure we always had alcohol in the house.

And then the gendarmerie arrived. At first I wasn’t home and my neighbors told me. Panicked I flushed all the contraband in my house down the toilet, which settled nicely in the alley by the side of the house. Thankfully, these gendarme weren’t looking for my contraband.  They had bigger issues to take up with me. The firing of Norman, my house boy….

Next: Fleeing Lamu: a wanted person (part 4 of 4)

Fleeing Lamu, a wanted person (part 4 of 4)

The gendarmerie arrived! In this case, three very large African men dressed in khaki military uniforms- head to toe, boots to hats. They knocked loudly on my door. I crossed the courtyard to open it.

“You have been served,” I was told and one thrust a paper into my hand. It seemed my former houseboy, Norman, was from the same tribe as Lamu’s magistrate.

Norman was from the same tribe as the island’s magistrate and he freakin’ sued me. He sued me for a much larger sum of money than what I offered him and because I didn’t hire another boy in his place, I doubly angered the powers that be because I was withholding potential income from the local economy. I bucked the system. I was a plug in the European cash flow pipe line. I had three choices: pay him more money, immediately hire someone else and claim Norman was a shoddy houseboy or go to jail. None of these choices appealed to my now 22 (I had a birthday in Lamu)-year-old way of doing things so I created a fourth option. I asked for a court hearing.

What was I thinking?!?

Court. Court in Lamu is the size of a master bedroom in a suburban valley home. At the head of the stone room is the judge behind a wood pedestal with a gavel. In front of him are rows of stone benches. In my case, 4 on each side. I sat in the back, in between two Indian young men who were arrested for smoking pot. The local Muslims hate the Indians but there is very little they can get them on– pot smoking, which is technically illegal — is all they have. The Indians hated being in court and gossiped to me the entire time. Then my name was called. I approached the Magistrate and turned to the room. Just as I was about to state my case, the Magistrate stoped me, calling for a break for lunch.

I was outraged! And I said as much.

“You can’t break now, I’ve been waiting all morning!” I said. “This is unfair!” I continued. “I demand to see my Embassy!” The Magistrate paused, turned back to me. “Oh, are you a diplomat?” Here’s where it gets good. “No, but I am an American citizen and I demand to talk to my Embassy.” I said with pathetic bravery.

The magistrate says: “Ok, you can go to your Embassy but you must leave your passport with me.”

Few things in life are crazier than overland travel in Kenya and few things are more insane than to travel overland in Kenya without any identification.

I went to Petley’s Inn, the only phone on the island, and called my Embassy which was in Mombasa, a boat, plane, bus ride away.

Here is what the nice woman said:

“We highly recommend you get here as soon as possible. You are the first European we have heard of being sued in Lamu in over 30 years and until you get here you are entirely in their jurisdiction.”


I returned to Philippe to tell him what happened. He quickly went to work. He arranged for a dhow to take me off the island to the air field where a small plane would be waiting to fly me to Mombassa. We said our goodbyes the night before. I gave Barbara the radio I bought. It was all I had. I had been in Lamu for 5 months. 5 years in Lamu time.

The sun was just rising. The boatman covered me under a blanket, Philippe was going to ride with me to the plane. We landed at the air field safely, unseen. And then Philippe decided to come with me. We travelled to Nairobi where Philippe met his attorney, the person handling the permits for the restaurant. I translated English to French for Philippe and he realized for the first time that there would be no end to the money he would have to give in bribes.

Moving quickly, before news travelled to Nairobi, we decided to leave Kenya together. He bought us two first class tickets on Air France to Los Angeles where he thought he could find work writing again. Nervously, we passed the military throughout the Kenyan airport but we boarded, unstopped. In our seats, safe, Philippe ordered us a bottle of champaign. The first of what would be many bottles. But I didn’t know that then. To Los Angeles.