With Help from the Rollei, Making Friends in Lamu

Monday, November 18, 2013 | Lamu, Kenya

At left, friendly Lou Shauri relaxed with his friend Abbas beside Lamu's town square.
During our time in Lamu back in August, I found that just showing the Rollei a bit more overtly made it a great tool for meeting new people. Its appearance in the hands of a peculiar blond-haired mzungu seemed to surprise many, and instantly invited conversation.

Late one afternoon, I was strolling among the fruit and vegetable sellers who had spread their wares across Lamu's main square, looking for photo opportunities in the dappled light sneaking through the grand trees overhead. A man selling used sandals and shoes from a blanket stopped his work to ask me all about the camera, grinning with fascination as I told its story. "1951?! Mm, mm, mm…"

Across the square, I paused to load a new roll of film, and attracted the attention of another local, Lou Shauri, who was lounging with his friend and waiting for iftaar to arrive. Lou was a Lamu native, but told me how he left the island at age 23 to come live in the US. He had spent the last three decades in Columbus, Ohio, where he has a family, but returns regularly to Lamu for his holidays.

While his friend Abbas read the paper, Lou and I found plenty to discuss about life in the US and Lamu. He told me about his childhood, when Lamu's rooftops were the domain of women, and the streets the domain of men. "It's not like that anymore," he sighed.

He took a liking to my camera, and let me snap a few pictures of him and his friend, after I promised to send copies to him at home in Ohio. I explained that it might take me until Thanksgiving to have the pictures developed, and he laughed and said he'd be happy to see them any time.

I've just developed the pictures and ordered Lou's prints, which I'll mail to him next week from Baltimore.

* * *

Slim the silversmith shows off his handiwork.
Five years ago, on her first trip to Lamu, Rebecca bought a unique ring: a curved piece of white-and-blue Chinese porcelain, not yet yellowing with age, set in silver. In August, I returned with her to the silversmith, Mbarak O. Slim, to talk about his craft while Rebecca picked over his wares. (Sadly, we arrived to find his inventory severely depleted; Jude Law had walked into the shop a few months earlier, Slim said, and decided on the spot to buy every piece he had. Slim was still busy restoring his stock, using Chinese pottery shards he said were scavenged from a wreck off Shanga, on nearby Pate Island.)

After a bit of chatting (and purchasing), Slim was more than happy to let me take his photo with the Rollei, even firing up his blowtorch to get some action shots. He was also eager to show us all the pictures of himself and visiting celebrities that adorned his walls. He pointed to one of him and a pudgy friend, laughing, "He is fat, I am Slim! I told him not to eat rice at night. I said 'It will make you fat to eat rice at night' but he continued and now you see what happens!"

Slim's photos, too, are in the mail, and should reach his small shop in Lamu sometime next month.

Slim at work in his shop

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