The history of Lamu in one house

Saturday May 13 2017

Subira House in Lamu: Left, Night dining in the courtyard; and right, decorated archways leading to the indoor verandah. PHOTOS | RUPI MANGAT

Lamu, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is famous for its historical limestone Swahili houses built close together, leaving only narrow lanes between them.

The distinct Swahili architecture featuring carved wooden doors has many stories behind it.

Hopping off the boat at the pier after the short ride from the mainland, I took the short walk to the 18th century Subira House — behind the Lamu Fort — that once belonged to the Liwali or governor of Lamu. The doors were open and we walked into the courtyard.

The houses in Lamu Town on the island of Lamu in the Lamu archipelago on Kenya’s north Coast near the border with Somalia, still reflect the grandeur of the island’s past wealth.

But with its golden days long gone, most of the grand homes lost their lustre until the arrival of European tourists-turned settlers from the 1970s, who bought the dilapidated houses and restored them into exquisite private homes and tourist resorts.

Subira House is one such house. It is listed as Grade 1 by Unesco because of the careful restoration of its original Swahili architecture which has been a labour of love for Christina and Paul Aarts – a Swedish and Dutch couple – who met on the island in 1975 and returned 15 years later to make it their home.


The house had been one of the most lavish on the island until the abolition of slavery, and with no free labour to work on the farms, the owner got into debt and could not maintain it anymore.

“When we saw the house in 1990, it was subdivided into three flats and was horrible.”

But what caught Christina’s interest was that it was like the house of Lamu’s most famous poetess of the 19th century, Mwana Kupona whose poem Utendi wa Mwana Kupona, (The Book of Mwana Kupona), is one of the most well-known works of early Swahili literature.

Subira House was named after the daughter of a friend of the Aarts born in 1975 in Siyu on Pate Island. The house has a dome at the entrance reflecting Omani architecture. It once had 12 of the finest carved wooden doors, some by Mohamed Abubaker Kijumwa, who is hailed as the Socrates of Lamu.

Born in Lamu in 1855, he was a self-taught man of exceptional talent — a philosopher, historian, artist, woodcarver, calligrapher and scholar. One of his lasting contributions to Lamu was the setting up of the wood carving industry.

Prior to that, carved wooden doors were shipped in from Zanzibar or India. Lamu developed its unique style of door carving in the late 1800s. Today, one of Kijumwa’s wooden carved doors can be seen at the German Post Office in Lamu.

Before the Aarts bought Subira house, all the doors had been sold for a paltry sum to a European buyer and replaced with much smaller doors.


When the Aarts knocked down the “new” walls used to subdivide the house, they found the original features — arched doorways and the customary “baraza” by the doorway, notches in the walls, exquisite carved walls and courtyards that are now filled with tropical plants.

Soon after the house was restored, the Aarts had an unusual visitor, an old woman of about 80, who claimed to have been a slave working in the house. “She walked around the house, touching the walls, and talking. She said she remembered her master as a kind man,” says Paul.

“It’s an ongoing labour of love and I love every corner of this house,” says Christina. “The mangrove beams on the ceiling have to be replaced every 20 years because they begin to rot; and the walls are re-plastered with the traditional lime mix every few years.

“It’s all done by hand, which makes it slow work. Lamu has become the centre of our world. But after 27, years we are thinking of selling Subira House because the feel of Lamu is going to change with the port and proposed coal plant and the resort city turning it into another Dubai.

“It’s not the place we need for our peace of mind,” Christina concludes sadly.