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They come in all shapes and sizes. There are the old, rickety types, made largely of wood with dog-eared sails which power them along once they catch the wind.
They come in all shapes and sizes. There are the old, rickety types, made largely of wood with dog-eared sails which power them along once they catch the wind.

These dhows wallow beneath the weight of their cargo, and although some have diesel engines, they still crawl along at the speed of those with only a sail.

Then there are the sleek, modern varieties, made of glass fibre and with petrol engines.

These vessels make up many times over with their speed for what the other types have in character and tradition.

Welcome to the world of the sea matatus that ply between the islands of the Lamu archipelago.

Both types of boats, ancient and modern, share a vital responsibility — providing crucial transport and therefore helping to drive the economy of Lamu and its sister islands Manda, Pate, Simambaye, Kivungamwini, Ndau, Ndau Pate and Kiwayu.

Between them, the boats shuttle hundreds of passengers and tonnes of goods between the ports on the Lamu mainland and others that dot the islands.

They cost between Sh500,000 and Sh1 million each, depending on type, equipment and the number of engines they have.

The passengers vary from locals going back and forth across the channels as they pursue their livelihood, to businessmen and tourists arriving to conduct transactions and enjoy the sun and sand of Lamu and the North Coast.

Among goods that the boats ferry as well as passengers, are petroleum products, vegetables, charcoal and other merchandise for shops in the islands.

For those out to enjoy the sights and sounds of Lamu, the boat rides are a refreshing experience. Nothing beats the feel of the wind in the face as the evergreen mangroves slide by.

In the absence of a causeway or bridges, the boats are a must for those travelling to the islands.

Coxswain Salim Bakari, aged 32, who has been sailing since aged only 12, said: “This is our source of livelihood and we are proud of the work we do.”

Mr Bakari makes around five round trips in his sleek speedboat on a good day, with each trip fetching between Sh1,500 to Sh2,000.

Whereas the slower boats take up to half an hour to travel from Mokowe jetty on the Lamu mainland to Lamu Island, the speedboats do it in 10 minutes.

Hiring a speedboat to tourists or groups going for swimming, diving or fishing brings in about Sh40,000 a day.

Although the trips are now fewer because of security concerns caused by the Somalia operation, Mr Bakari and his fellow boatmen are optimistic things will soon return to normal.

But the business is not without the chaos and disorder that characterise the matatu system on Kenya’s roads.

Anyone arriving at the jetty receives a noisy reception as the touts and crew jostle to win one more passenger.

As a traveller, Mr Dominic Magara found out during one trip how the lack of organisation can become a big inconvenience.

One crew that had lured passengers with promises of lower charges suddenly changed mind mid-channel and demanded more money.

However, the passengers would hear none of it and demanded that the coxswain either takes them back to Lamu Island or accepts the fare earlier agreed.

In the course of the exchanges, the boat ran out of fuel and stalled mid-channel.

“It was very scary. But we stuck to our guns and they had to take the fare they had promised,” said Mr Magara.

The coxswain got out paddles and rowed the boat to a ‘filling station’ – another bigger boat moored in the channel which carries drums of fuel for sale.

The boatmen try to be disciplined and have a lobby group called Usivame Speed Boats Group to fight for their interests.

Kenya Ports Authority regulates them and issues coxswain licences to people who want to join the business.