Lamu Archipelago, Kenya
A rat skittered up my spine. Kahindi, the night watchman on the street corner, heard my shriek. He shifted slightly in the gloom as I ripped away the tight barrier of mosquito netting tucked under the mattress and tumbled onto the floor. Fearful of being bitten, I scrambled away from the rodent that had found its way into the bed. Why couldn’t I hear it? I found the light switch and looked for something to throw. Were neighbours now peering at the half- naked mzungu (“foreigner”) from the shadows of their window embrasures? I pulled down my T-shirt. Where was it? My heartbeat slowed as I grew fully conscious. The breeze off Lamu Channel had dropped away to nothing in the night, and even on the fourth floor, the ceiling fan paddled through air humid enough to offer resistance. My thrashing had twisted the sodden sheets and I wasn’t about to fall asleep again after being hagridden. Grabbing a pillow, I threw back the brass bar on the door lock and felt blindly for the stairs to the roof. The call to prayer came just before dawn. When the loudspeaker crackled to life and the muezzin chanted his request to the faithful, thin Swahilis in long white robes hurried, their slippers slapping on bare earth, to attend their first obligation of the day. In Arabic, the high voice quavered. “O, Muslims, come for prayer. O, Muslims, come for good deeds. Prayer is better than sleeping.” My own vigil at an end, I uncurled from a hard chaise and watched from the balustrade as the equatorial sun rose red as a torch. I was getting feverish as well. Not an auspicious start to a wedding day on the East African coast.
On the ground floor, I shut the front door quietly and walked through empty alleys perfumed with jasmine tumbling from shuttered townhouses in Shela. A wooden water taxi christened Beyoncé was waiting at the landing.
I met Tima Adnan and Ali Mohammed the week before their wedding in a fishing village on the back side of Lamu. Ali’s mother, Rahamah, beckoned me inside their coral stone house to avoid heatstroke. Faded cloth was draped modestly over her head and shoulders. She didn’t speak English, but a younger woman offered to translate. “We are about to eat,” Tima announced. Kerosene lamps hung on mangrove beams. Chickens hopped on beds in alcoves on either side of the common room. A sleeping baby swayed in a hammock under the slats of a woven palm settee where I was urged to sit. Tima had learned English at school in Old Town. She had a narrow face and a nose piercing. I was reminded of bony cats lurking in Lamu’s alleys, their immediate pedigree uncertain, but bearing a strong resemblance to the sacred felines beloved of pharaohs. When her future sisters sat on a floor mat to roll out ropes of rice flour dough, she introduced me to her fiancé. Ali was plastering a new addition that would be their bedroom. Whitewash spattered on his red T-shirt and thin arms. They had courted modern style, she confessed, flirting and trading playful texts. Ali put down his brush and left to practice for the Maulid bareback races. The year before, his grey donkey had placed second. Rahamah showed me how to fashion a Swahili turban. She deftly flipped a swatch of patterned cloth around her sweetly freckled face. It was difficult to guess her age, somewhere beyond childbearing but not yet careworn. Then we entered the kitchen, a walled courtyard with a gap in the roof to draw smoke from the smouldering cook fire. A niece threw a handful of coconut husks on the ashes and fanned the flame higher. The other girls cut up spinach and soaked tamarind pods. “When you cook slowly, poli poli, then the food is good,” instructed Tima. We sat in a circle on a floor mat and everyone rinsed his or her hands, pouring a small amount of water from one bowl to another. Then Tima served chicken smothered in dense gravy that could easily have been prepared in the kitchen of a mughal emperor, an ocean and an age away. But I guessed that chickens did not have their necks wrung every day in this modest household of fishermen. Before I left, Tima issued another invitation: “My wedding is on Friday,” she announced. “You should come.”
This article is an adaptation from the recent book “Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World” Published by Ten Speed Press. James Beard Award-winning journalist Shane Mitchell and photographer James Fisher have traveled the world on assignment for food and travel publications such as Travel + Leisure, Australian Gourmet Traveller and Saveur. Along the way, they have encountered the fascinating people who are keeping some of the world’s oldest food traditions alive, such as taro farmers in Hawaii who have never left the islands, Maasai warriors in Kenya, and Icelandic shepherds who still use the techniques of their Viking ancestors. Full of compelling photography from far-flung locations, Far Afield profiles these people, sharing their unique and captivating stories along with forty recipes.