• Traditional boats are intrinsically linked with the Swahili culture and the people who live here.
  • Communities residing in several Islands scattered across Indian Ocean sometimes solely depend on traditional boats mainly used for fishing and transport.
  • In Lamu, Kenya’s tropical Island, for instance, jetties play a very important role since they are the only entry and exit points to the Kenyan historic town and other adjacent islands.

Water transport along the Kenyan coast is one of the most important means of transportation and whole communities residing in several Islands scattered across Indian Ocean sometimes solely depend on traditional boats mainly used for fishing and transport.

In Lamu, Kenya’s tropical Island, for instance, jetties play a very important role since they are the only entry and exit points to the Kenyan historic town and other adjacent islands.

Lamu
Lamu

Traditional boats are intrinsically linked with the Swahili culture and the people who live here.

The four most well-known kinds of traditional seacraft along the Swahili coast can be split into two categories: The first two kinds being dugout canoes, with the hull carved from a single piece of wood from a large tree trunk.

Matondoni village - Lamu Kenya. (Flickr)
Matondoni village - Lamu Kenya. (Flickr)

Also read: Here are 11 interesting must-visit places in Lamu Archipelago that will blow you away

The second two kinds being traditional 'dhows' with a pointed bow and square stern - built from planks of wood being nailed and bound together by various methods. 

This design of vessel can trace its origins in Oman, and due to the seaworthiness of the vessel, availability of materials, the ease of maintenance, and the efficiency of the lateen sail, construction and use of these boats has spread throughout the Indian Ocean.

Considering that, here are four Swahili traditional boats you need to add on your bucket list and hop in one and sail off. 

Mtumbwi

Mtumbwi. (flickr)
Mtumbwi. (flickr)

This is a simple dugout found in sheltered coastal waters. Mtumbwi is the most basic of traditional boats found along The Swahili Coast. It is a simple dugout canoe, generally carved from a large coastal tree such as a mango tree. 

The smaller dugouts have the Swahili name ‘hori’, and are used to move between shore and larger vessels at anchor.

Mtumbwi are usually propelled by a small wooden paddle (kafi) or punting pole.

Ngalawa

Ngalawa. (Wikipedia)
Ngalawa. (Wikipedia)

Ngalawa is an unmistakable sailing outrigger canoe plying lagoons, creeks and near shore waters.

Ngalawa. (sail-world.)
Ngalawa. (sail-world.)

It’s slim hull approximately 6 metres long is essentially a dugout canoe or Mtumbwi, which is what this vessel most likely evolved from. The raised bow and higher sides to the hull allow for the Ngalawa to reach out into the open seas. A pointed stern holds the rudder.

Mashua

Mashua.
Mashua.

Mashua is a general name given to a variety of larger, ‘plank’ built traditional dhow with a square stern, often used for cargo transport, and fishing in the open waters.

Boats at the Lamu Island.
Boats at the Lamu Island.

The swahili word for a boat is 'Mashua', hence this name of dhow does refer to a broad range of vessels.

Jahazi

Jahazi. (kenya-coast)
Jahazi. (kenya-coast)

Weighing as much as 30 tons and capable of crossing thousands of miles of open ocean, Jahazi is the grand dhow of the Indian Ocean. Today's Jahazi differs little from early ocean going vessels that traded throughout the Indian Ocean hundreds of years ago.

Jahazi Skeleton. (jahasi.blogspot.)
Jahazi Skeleton. (jahasi.blogspot.)

The Jahazi is the biggest of the local dhows, and is used mainly to carry cargo and passengers between the islands and the mainland and is found throughout the Swahili coast and beyond across the Indian Ocean. 

One theory on the origin of the design is said to come from the skeleton of a whale. With the backbone as the keel and the ribs forming the skeletal structure on which the wooden planking of the hull is fixed.