Swahili House Museum

The Swahili House Museum on Lamu gives visitors a glimpse of the traditional setup of a Swahili home. Houses are usually oblong and built around a small open courtyard. The houses in the few remaining very traditional towns, are single-story buildings, but in a wealthier and crowded town, such as Lamu, most are two-storied and many have three stories – the structurally safe limit.

A story is typically added when the occupying family expands by the marriages of its daughters. In some grander houses the ground floor was occupied by slaves and used as warehouses, and the family members lived above.

Drainage is an important consideration: houses have flat roofs and house drains send the often heavy rainfall into the streets drains, which empty into the sea.

The axis of a typical house runs north and south. The entrance to the courtyard is properly at the north end and the owners private rooms are at the south end. The vagaries of the street layouts mean that a staircase from the front door may twist and change directions so as to end up in the right place.

The traditional house is a very private place, its outside walls having only holes for ventilation. Light comes from the open courtyard. The entrance is through a large seat-lined porch (daka) raised a foot or two above the street, with a double wooden door traditionally elaborately carved and decorated with geometric or floral and leaf patterns and Quranic inscriptions.

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