Swahili Mansion Restoration
Lamu, Kenya
One of the most comprehensive expressions of the Swahili culture is the stone house which, until the 19th century and prior to European influence, was a reflection of the socio-economic structure of this society. In traditional Swahili society, a strict hierarchy of living conditions was maintained. Although trading was a principal source of income, a degree of cultural resistance prevented physical wealth being directly linked to social prestige. The latter was identified with the concept of "wa-ungwana", inherent only to long-established groups and with connotations of cultural behaviour, financial integrity and a certain urbanity. The Wa-ungwana reserved certain parts of the town and had the exclusive right to build their houses of stone. These houses were often interlocking, as a result of the relationships that existed within the group. Newcomers and lower ranking inhabitants settled in mud and thatch structures. Most of the stone houses are oriented to the north and comprise adjacent extensions.

Prior to the restoration, this two-storey house had suffered some structural damage, and the interior decorations in plaster had deteriorated seriously. Previous occupants had subdivided the house into small units. Undertaken by local masons, the house has been returned to its original design and decoration. It is a secondary residence and, considered by experts to be an outstanding example of Swahili domestic architecture, often open to visitors.

The structure has virtually no externally oriented windows and entry is possible only through an outer porch (daka) which is used as a guest reception area and gives into an inner porch which, in turn, leads to a vast, rectangular courtyard. A series of interconnecting, parallel rooms, rectangular in plan, constitute the remainder of the main level, which is repeated almost identically on the upper floor, thus forming a separate house unit. Adjacent to the courtyard are two consecutive living rooms and slightly further removed are the women's quarters. The harem is the most richly decorated room with almost an entire wall (directly opposite the doorway to the inner living room) decorated with multiple wall niches. In the two outer living rooms, large, elaborate, single niches with stucco features are in the lower walls. Coffered ceilings are decorated with red and black painted motifs.

It is constructed using load bearing walls of local coral rag; ceilings of local mangrove poles (Boriti) and plaster; thatch roofing.

Source: Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Lamu, Kenya
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Associated Names
19th c., restored 1976
Variant Names
Swahili Mansion Restoration
Building Usages
private residence