Vernacular Housing of Lamu (Swahili Housing)
Lamu, Kenya
The stone houses of the Lamu archipelago stand on small plots of land averaging 250 square meters. The houses are self-contained residential units that accommodate the activities of a large nuclear family, a domestic staff, and (often) extended family members. As the need for space arises, most Lamu Swahili houses can expand vertically, giving rise to multi-storied units.

Traditionally, Lamu Swahili houses are oriented towards the north. This both provides protection from the sun and also reflects the popular practice of orienting houses towards the qibla (Swahili upande yaKibla). This tradition has often resulted in very complex staircase structures inside these small, two-storey homes, as stair landings also should retain a northern orientation. Thus the staircases are often found at the northern end of a house, with the stair rise running from west to east. One enters the house from the north, through the outer porch (daka), along the north side of the house.

In the traditional two-storey houses of the Lamu archipelago, the ground floor is assigned as the servant's quarters and the upper floor is the realm of the owners and the extended family members. Houses do not typically have outward facing windows, with the exception of the high ventilation holes in each lower-level bathroom space. Nor do rooms have any windows onto the inner courtyard; their entrance openings are their only apertures. The overall structure of the Lamu house consists of uncoursed coral blocks and lime mortar. Scholars theorize that the dimensional unit governing the Swahili house is that of a common structural material, the mangrove pole. Used in domestic construction, the span of the pole sets the limits of each residential unit. This often results in the 3 meter (9.8 feet) width seen in the roofs along the Lamu archipelago. Typically, roofs and floors are constructed out of thick coral that is supported on wood joists roughly 30 cm apart on center.

Scholars hold that Swahili housing typologies consist of an intimacy gradient where the most public part of the house is the outer part, that which is essentially a part of the street. The procession from the inner court--courtyard--living rooms-- harem follows the transition from the public to the most private spaces. Each space is separated from the next, and as the level of privacy rises, rooms are correspondingly higher in elevation and darker than those preceding.


Entrance into the house is gained through an outer porch (daka) with an opening that measures 3 meters high. The outer porch opens out into the street on one end, and typically leads into the inner porch (tekani) through a set of carved wooden double-leafed doors. A second set of double doors leads directly to the first floor of the residential unit. The decorative elements on the doors consist of a carved door frame, a center post, and a lintel. The center post does not function as a structural member but is instead nailed to one of the door panels. The motifs used as decorative elements include Koranic inscriptions, shallow geometric patterns and floral motifs, including the lotus. The daka typically contains solid benches or stone seats where visitors and male family members can recline; Lamu guests are typically entertained on the daka. Any overnight guests are taken into the guest room (sabule) on the ground floor, whose entrance is devised such that it is impossible to see into the main residence while en route to the guest room. It was considered particularly important during the 18th-century Muslim colonial period that male visitors make no contact with women living within a residence. To this end, guests were generally allowed into the sanctuary of the home after the women of the household were all within the private space of the harem (ndani).

The courtyard space (kiwanda) provides natural light to the main rooms of the house and also contains a cooking area (kidara cha meko) with a thatched roof to trap the smoke from the cooking fire that would otherwise ruin the lime plasterwork. In most houses there is usually a storeroom located just off the courtyard, and in larger houses there is a drinking well located in the central courtyard area or just off the main space. The courtyard is the spatial nucleus of the house, and it is here that daytime activities such as playing, laundry, eating, and craft-making take place. The ground floor of the house is often raised several steps above the courtyard, and traffic around the courtyard is generated from all sides of the unit throughout the day.

The main rooms of the house are usually located south of the courtyard, and comprise two living rooms, rectangular gallery spaces stretching along the entire length of the courtyard with large apertures as entrances leading both into the courtyard and into one other. These rooms are known as the msana wa tini (lower chamber, or outer living room) and msana wa yuu (upper chamber, or inner living room). Both use the term msana, which has the connotation of "work room." Both the msana wa tini and the msana wa yuu are densely furnished with chairs, stools, and beds of various sizes. The beds serve as both beds (by closing the curtain hanging on the curtain pole) and as tables. Meals are more often than not eaten on floor mats. The msana wa tini each have a large elaborate single niche with a stucco surround at either end or the rooms. Both msana spaces will typically also have a stuccowork frieze, and depending on the size of the space, could contain a wall panel with decorative niches (daka or zidaka). The msana wa tini serves more as a verandah space overlooking the courtyard. It can seat several guests and is recessed enough to provide cover, but still maintains a view open to the sky. It is separated from the courtyard by large columns or piers (zipiya) that are wide enough to have benches placed against them. The msana wa yuu functions as a more private space, and its two ends are screened off as bed spaces. The screens used for this purpose are usually rich traditional fabrics folded over round rails (miwandi) that are anchored on either end into the wall. Beyond the two living spaces is the harem (ndani), an inner room whose threshold is an elaborately decorated heavy wooden doorway. It is difficult to get an uninterrupted view of this space from any vantage point in the courtyard. The harem will sometimes have a very plain middle room (nyumba ya kati, also known as the room for laying out the dead) within it, as well as an inner bathroom. The harem is often the most elaborately decorated room in the whole house, with an entire wall covered with panels of decorative wall niches. The nyumba ya kati will usually lead into an extra room (mtatato), which either cantilevers into the street or spans across the street as a bridge supported by mangrove pole beams. The mtatato will typically begin at a height of 4 meters, or a full story, above street level.

The outer bathroom on the ground floor, which is normally used as the men's bathroom, has decorative elements in the form of a large niche and some carved panels on the half-wall that divides a washing area from the lavatory pit.

The upper courtyard space usually occupies the roof space of the outer living room (msana wa tini) below, and is surrounded by a wall that precludes any views coming up from the lower courtyard. An outer bathroom and upper level guest room (sabule) are arranged around the north side of the upper level (often above the ground-level guest room and the entry porches), and although the arrangement of most of the upper level spaces are consistent with those in the lower levels, there may or may not be an inner bathroom within the ndani, and there is no nyumba ya kati on the upper floor. Cooking in the upper level units is done in a small penthouse on the roof, accessed via a steep, walled staircase leading from the upper courtyard. The roof is seldom used, the exceptions being for drying laundry and a few other domestic chores.

The most common decorative feature designed to break the monotony of the blank wall is the wall niche, both with and without stucco surrounds. In most cases, these niches are used for storage, housing decorative wares, pottery and artifacts, and when lined with wood, as bookshelves. Some wall niches were reserved for use as lamp holders. The architectural device of the niche also introduces visual width to otherwise narrow rooms.

Rituals and House Design:

Swahili rituals have had a direct impact on the design of the traditional house. Marriages and funerals, as well as the rituals associated with the birth of a child, influenced the nature of the domestic spaces and the decorative elements chosen for each space. The most significant and well-documented ritual is the wedding ceremony. The ceremony traditionally affected the stuccowork, since the ceremony itself constituted the motivation for finishing the plasterwork in a new house. First, the father of the family lays down a pit of lime (tokaa, chokaa) that is made from burnt coral. This lime is left exposed, gradually breaking down into a fine powder after seasons of rainfall have leached through it. This slow exposure produces a high-quality powder, used for plasterwork that will later be carved into decorative motifs. When this mortar is used for more structural or form-specific work, it is typically reinforced with broken seashells.

As the day of the wedding approaches, the decorative work begins with the carving of the stuccowork, known in Swahili as fola la wazo or fola la kuwaza, "the feast of the stucco". The decorative work performed here includes the carving out of ornamental niches, or zidaka, on the jambs and sidewalls. These niches will vary in area and depth and are capped with multi-foil arches or ogee arches. The niches in the walls of the harem are usually of greater varying proportions, and will take the form of arched or rectangular caps. Other decorative elements used in the carved plasterwork include motifs of stylized leaves in a spiral surround, often oriented along a chain, zigzag or fluted pattern. A more popular organic form used is that of the stylized turtle. Scholars attest that this stylized decorative plasterwork in Swahili houses resembles carvings found on the ashlar masonry of 5th century Anatolian churches.

The ritual concerning the "revelation of the bride," (ku-onyesha bi-harusi or kutolewa nde) is another very important one. This ceremony takes place in the bride's home or in the new house built for her by her parents. Traditionally this ceremony took place in the harem (ndani), the space immediately past the living rooms from the courtyard. A decorated bed was fitted into a niche known as the blind fireplace, which was carved below the lowest and largest row of decorative niches in the harem wall. The bride was required first to sit initially with her profile to the harem door, and would later remove her veil and pose with all her ceremonial finery for the guests. Once the ceremony was over, the bed remained in the niche of the blind fireplace, and would later be used as a cot for infant babies (kipiya).

Other Swahili Housing Typologies:

The same general spatial concepts that governed the Lamu house also defined other traditional Swahili housing typologies. Rooms were typically planned axially, and the spaces were modulated by the typical length of a mangrove pole (roughly 3 m on average). Other consonant themes included the decorative plasterwork associated with ritual and societal affluence. Archaeological excavations have unearthed 6 main typologies across different sites on the Swahili coast, in addition to those on the Lamu archipelago: Songo Mnara, Mtwapa, Kilwa, Kua, Gedi, Mombasa and Dondo.

The deserted 18th-century site of Mtwapa revealed two-storey housing units with a compact terrace. Excavations at Kilwa have revealed many two- and three-storey structures, similar in plan to the housing typology of the Lamu archipelago. In Songo Mnara, the dominant typology discovered was that of a single-storey unit with entrance lobbies that led into sunken courtyards. Most of these houses also showed the remains of timber shelves built across the widths of many of the rooms, whose speculative function was as a bed, although the dimensions for these features (1 m wide and 1 m above floor level) do not seem ideal for this theory. Songo Mnara houses constitute both the largest and smallest known residences discovered through archaeological excavation to date. The houses at Gedi reflect a similar typology to those excavated in Songo Mnara. However, most of the Gedi houses show an addition to the floor plans in the form of a store or storage space, believed to have been used for storing cowry currency, accessible through a high trap door. The courtyards of Gedi and Kilwa houses were typically smaller than those of Songo Mnara. As aforementioned, the housing typology in Lamu showed the programmatic use of the lower level as servant quarters as its main differentiated use. Also unique to Lamu houses was the existence of an upper level courtyard space. The 18th century island town site of Kua revealed houses with a plan designed as twin units, each with its own large courts. Archaeologists have theorized that these units would have belonged to two wives; this typology represents a unique attitude towards differentiating privacy in women's quarters.

For all the typologies discovered, and as reflected in the lineage of contemporary traditional housing design, the relationship between the public domain of the street and the layered spaces beyond the courtyard remains an important one. The emphasis on decorative plaster work in relation to the relatively simple architectural spaces introduces spatial depth, and the complex stylized surface treatments add richness to the material experience of Swahili domestic space.


De Vere Allen, James and Thomas Wilson. 1979. Swahili Houses and Tombs of the Coast of Kenya. London: AARP (Art and Archaeology Research Papers).

De Vere Allen, James. 1974. "Swahili Architecture in the Later Middle Ages." African Arts, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter, 1974): 42-84. UCLA: James S. Coleman African Studies Center.

Ghaidan, Usam. 1975. Lamu: A Study of the Swahili Town. Dar es Salaam: The East African Literature Bureau.

Ghaidan, Usam. 1973. "Swahili Plasterwork." African Arts, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter, 1973): 46-49. UCLA: James S. Coleman African Studies Center

See also:

De Vere Allen, James. 1989. "The Kiti Cha Enzi and Other Swahili Chairs." African Arts, Vol. 22, No. 3 (May, 1989): 54-88. UCLA: James S. Coleman African Studies Center.

Ghaidan, Usam. 1971. "Swahili Art of Lamu." African Arts, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn, 1971): 54-84. UCLA: James S. Coleman African Studies Center.
Lamu, Kenya
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