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The Year of the Dhow

By Kelly Campbell

“You can’t discover a new land without first losing sight of the shore.” –adapted from Andre Gide

I kicked off 2015 in the enchanted island oasis of the Lamu Archipelago, in the village of Shela, on the Swahili Coast of Kenya. I had rented the top floor of the beautiful and locally owned Shela Bahari Guest House for the holidays and was reveling in the peace and tranquility of the island. Imagine the oldest living Swahili settlement in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site, complete with donkeys, camels and ancient sailing dhows. There weren’t any cars, no noise, no pollution, no traffic - just nature… and time standing still - the perfect remedy for a year of tiresome travel.

Caption: Shela Bahari Guesthouse in Lamu. Photo Credit: Kelly Campbell

Caption: New Year's Day dhow races in Lamu. Photo Credit: Kelly Campbell

Sailing with the captain and crew of Hippo Dhow quickly became my favorite activity. Yusuf, Ahmed and Sheke grew up on the sea, and they knew it as well as their own hands. We would wake at dawn to the sounds of roosters, cats and donkeys starting their day. With each day, the excursions opened my eyes to more spectacular scenes in the archipelago. We sailed through the mangroves to the coral formations of Manda Toto and snorkeled among the brightly colored fish and swaying sea grass. We stopped in the small village of Matandoni to see how dhows are made and then landed at the deserted beaches of Kipungani for a feast of seafood, salad, chapatti and local fruits. Another morning, we caught high tide and made it to Takwa Ruins before the water receded and life within the mangroves crawled up on shore. On another day, we sailed to Lamu Town and took a walking tour with our guide, Abdullah Bob, a man full of history, knowledge, and stories that made us fully appreciate every moment of the day.

Caption: Flying the flag high on Hippo Dhow in Lamu. Photo Credit: Kelly Campbell

The inhabitants of Shela Village originate from seven families. They were all welcoming, friendly and ready to open their homes to visitors. Upon our return to Lamu, we were greeted with the phrase “Welcome Back,” as no one seemed to have forgotten our faces. My sailing adventure on Hippo Dhow with my friends from Shela set the tone for the rest of the year - the year I now call, “The Year of the Dhow.”

After several productive, yet grueling trips around the world during the following Spring, I flew to the island archipelago of Zanzibar in March to celebrate my birthday and enjoy some much needed downtime. I was in luck as friends from Lamu had sailed another dhow, called Wisdom, down the Kenyan coast and were safely harbored in the tiny fishing village of Kendwa (on the Northern tip of Zanzibar).

Caption: Captain Boya marketing Wisdom Dhow in Zanzibar. Photo Credit: Rahim Saggaf

During this second visit, the crew consisted of Yusuf, Boya and Bongo – all ready and willing to sail wherever the winds would take them. Zanzibar is a bigger island than Lamu and presented us with much more to explore.

Caption: Captain Boya and Wisdom Dhow in Zanzibar. Photo Credit: Rahim Saggaf

From Kendwa, we sailed to the popular Mnemba Island where I was met with a pleasant surprise. A school of dolphins approached and swam with me while I snorkeled over the reef. Hearing their sounds and watching them frolic underwater was a treat I will never forget. While I felt exhilarated, I was also completely calm in their presence. There were entire families swimming around me. Mothers protecting their babies, little ones causing trouble and playing games, and adults nestling their rostrums into each other in a loving and peaceful manner. They swam in circles, talking to each other in their own complete language, and then disappearing into the deep blue ocean only to reappear happy and jovial minutes later. They seemed to find great joy in being around the people at the reef, almost as though they were our tour guides showing us their home. I felt truly blessed at having had an authentic encounter with some of nature’s most intelligent and thoughtful creatures.

Caption: Another day we sailed to the island of Tembatu, where I found myself collecting bright red starfish and photographing to my heart’s content. Kelly Campbell.

Many times throughout the month, we sailed our beloved Wisdom at sunset down the coast to the village of Nungwi, waving at tourists dotting the beach in front of hotels and restaurants (probably quite envious of our dhow).

As my month of sailing, swimming, relaxing and island exploration came to an end, I found myself on yet another transatlantic flight dreaming of the wind in my hair and the sun on my back sailing the Indian Ocean. At that moment, I vowed to find a way to sail throughout the rest of the year.

That night, I booked an Airbnb and moved to Zanzibar for the summer. The crew and I decided to move Wisdom from it’s home in Kendwa to the more bustling area of Stone Town. We sailed all the way around Zanzibar learning the intricacies of the different villages and picking our favorite spots to return to – coffee shops on the beach in Paje, roof top sundowners in Nungwi, fair trade shopping in Stone Town, sitting poolside on the cliffs of Matemwe, seafood lunches on one of the many sandbanks, and of course, swimming the turquoise waters of Kendwa.

Caption: The women of Sasik Fair Trade Cooperative sailing on Wisdom Dhow in Zanzibar. Photo Credit: Kelly Campbell

I moved between the two islands and found myself on a dhow most of the time. I brought tourists from all over the world to experience the two unique islands – still stuck in time, but full of life, love and adventure. Those that boarded Hippo Dhow and sailed around Lamu found themselves suddenly very connected to the people, the place, the sea, and that special sauce Captain Yusuf used on the fish. Those that sailed on the Wisdom explored island after island around Zanzibar. They sipped on Captain Boya’s famous fresh squeezed juice and were overcome by an undeniable sense of freedom and courage to explore the unknown. No matter which dhow visitors embarked on, travelers were inevitably swept up in the liberating elixir that was Zanzibar.

Caption: Captain Yusuf's special sauce for the fish on Hippo Dhow in Lamu. Photo Credit: Kelly Campbell

Kelly Campbell is the co-founder and partner of The Village Experience, a socially pro-active business dedicated to uplifting impoverished communities in the developing world through efforts in international trade and tourism.

To plan your trip to Lamu or Zanzibar and set sail on Hippo Dhow or Wisdom Dhow, contact

June 14, 2016
Resident cats awaiting the fisherman in Lamu. Photo credit: Kelly Campbell

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