Notes about history of Dhow Building in Lamu
From Kenys Star Newspaper Nairobi
Before the 1st century AD, the Swahili Bantu of Lamu participated in the barter trade
along the East African Coast and outwardly as far as the Middle East and up to
India. This trade was made possible by the sewn dhow or Utepe. This boat was unmistakably a symbol that Lamu’s Island community identified with, and provided the backbone of their collective livelihood.
While there were many different types of dhows, almost all of them used a triangular or lateen sail arrangement. This dhow was known for two distinctive features. First of all, its triangular or lateen sail, and secondly, for its stitched construction. Stitched boats were made by sewing the hull boards together with fibres, cords or thongs.
The idea of a boat made up of planks sewn together seems strange. Actually, it is a
type that has been in wide use in many parts of the world and in some places still is. In the Indian Ocean, it dominated the waters right up to the fifteenth century, when the arrival of the Portuguese opened the area to European methods. A Greek sea captain or merchant who wrote in the first century AD reports the use of small sewn boats off Zanzibar and off the southern coast of Arabia.
Later travellers reported seeing large sewn boats of 40 and 60 tons' burden and
Versions, of fair size, were still plying the waters of East Africa and around Sri Lanka in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Dhow making is considered an art, and this art has been passed down from one
generation to another, preserving, at least in part, the dhow's basic design and use. (Some modern dhow makers now nail their hulls together, and many are now making a square stern rather than a double-ended vessel.) By taking all of this into consideration, we can get an excellent idea of how the ancient dhow was constructed and what its sailing abilities were. Despite their historical attachment to Arab traders, dhows are essentially an Indian boat, with much of the wood for their construction coming from the forests of India, although much local mangrove wood was also used.
In 2010 however, the two most significant trading dhows in Lamu belong to hotel
establishments on the Island and remain the tangible symbols of the once flourishing trade of goods and passengers. There are of course modern dhows available and sailing on a traditional Swahili Dhow along the East African coast is one of the most memorable experiences for both local and foreign tourists alike.
Dhows are commonly used to get between the islands in the Lamu archipelago and the mangrove islands south of Mombasa but, for the most part, these operate more like dhow safaris than as a public transport. The larger modern dhows are all motorised and some of them do not even have sails. Over a century ago as Kenya came under the influence of colonial power Britain, the maritime agency Smith Mackenzie, was in charge of the dhow traffic and its offices were on the Lamu seafront where the current Sunsail Hotel is today. A typical journey for trading purposes on the great dhows could have taken as long as a month, with the crew having to be paid for the period they have been at sea. The building of the sewn boats or Utepe has almost been entirely lost and today only a very few craftsmen to whom the art or science of such boat building has been passed from generation to generation, remain. The traditional dhow building process is slowly vanishing, as people prefer to use faster and easier modern motorised means of transport.
Historically an elaborate ceremony was performed before a boat was commissioned to the sea in Lamu. The ceremony entailed the slaughtering of cattle and the appeasing of the ancestors and prayers to God to ensure that the sails were blessed and approved.
The ceremony included night vigils inside the dhows, accompanied by Koran recitations and readings, singing of traditional tunes, before the cow was eventually slaughtered and its tail tied on one end of the dhow from outside. There are fears now amongst historians in Lamu that traditional boat making knowledge, if not properly documented, could soon disappear forever.
According to the regional Kenya Marine Forum chairman Athman Hussein, the
future of dhow making is a problem because no area along the coastline has been
gazetted as a specific dhow building area and this has led to other businesses
occupying areas that were once exclusively for boat building. This trend and the imminent danger it presents led Professor Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, a renowned Swahili scholar, to start research into traditional dhow building back in the 1960s
During a recent interview he said, “Initially, apart from the information I had
over how the process is and a few other details, it was difficult to get anything on boat making. My teacher, Sheikh Abdallah Bakithur, confirmed that most of the construction materials for dhow making, could no longer be found,”
In Sheikh Nabany’s research, which he begun in 1965, he gathered 138 names and parts of the dhow and later wrote a book in verses describing the dhow and boat making matters. The book was published by the University of Amsterdam, Holland.
Nabany’s fortunes grew from there and some years ago, he was taken as a consultant
advisor on the construction of boats and dhows in Zanzibar. His efforts concluded with a historical vessel he built being placed in that island’s museum where it stands there to date. He says the gradual death of the sewn boats began in the 1960’s with the arrival of the speedboats, which use engines. The death was speeded up by the scarcity of the mangroves, which were the main construction material, and this got worse after the 1980s-harvesting ban imposed by the government.
Currently, it is only in Manda island, part of the Lamu archipelago, where there is still
enough space for a dhow making industry. Villagers in Matondoni and Kizingitini are also trying to revive the industry. The last two sewn boats were built by Mhobiti Hilal an expert in the trade. The boat was named the Queen Mary and its owner, Taib Jiwa, bought it in 1945 while a second boat Tawakal was bought by Mohammed Bin Hilali. During those days, the vessels were used also to ferry passengers up to Malindi and Mombasa, a journey that would take about two days and it was only during kusi
(when the sea was rough due to monsoon winds and especially in June and July), that the boats and dhows were ferried to the dry dock for repair.
The little known group, Basecamp, an organization involved in responsible tourism
and culture conservation has recently become involved in reviving the boat building enterprise. According to the Chief Executive Officer/programs director, Judy Kepher-Gona, the organization’s flagship project is a Dhow building school. Although the students are few, the organization, which is new in the area, intends to fulfil a dream of reviving the boat making culture in the area. Some of the few boat builders in the area are now worried that with the proposed construction of the Lamu Port, the trade will be completely wiped out since all the mangrove will be felled and there will be no stocks to make other boats.
The Lamu archipelago has the highest concentration of mangrove forests in the country. The main value for the mangrove forests is acting as a windbreak, thus
building up a cycle for rain. They also provide breeding ground for varied marine life, some which are a source of profit for local people.
Bakari Ali Ahmed, who has been building wooden boats for the last 42 years at his
small workshop, said they have to use over 100 mangrove poles for a medium sized boat that can carry 30 passengers. “Though there is a lot of difference between our boats and those used hundreds of years ago by the Swahili and Arab traders, we feel it is more or less the same,” he said. At another boat yard in Uyoni, Justin Mwacharo, an expert in sailing vessels, has been using fibreglass to make the speedboats, which have replaced the traditional boats and are used for transport, sports and leisure.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 30,000 hectares of mangrove forests are destroyed every year in the eastern seaboard of Africa. It remains to be seen whether the locals will embrace the boat making culture again through concerted efforts, or whether they will leave it to be part of the area’s rich history.