Edith Honan jumps aboard the Musafir for its first passenger trip, travelling from Kilifi to Lamu. A motley crew rely on their fishing skills for food, and the winds to sail, and a maverick skipper who they hope won’t burn their passports.
One of the fishing lines had gone taut and the Musafir’s sailors dashed to the stern of the dhow. A few metres away, the fish, nearly a metre long and as brilliantly turquoise as the sea, struggled in vain to break free.
A minute later, the dorado was lying dead on the stern, felled by a few swift blows to the head, and all six kilos of him would soon find their way into a coconut and tomato curry.
During the 24-hour journey from Kilifi to Lamu, the 31 crew members of the Musafir, a 23-meter dhow making just the fourth sail of its life, would live off of the sea. A tug on those fishing lines meant lunch.
The story of the Musafir began six years ago as the wild and beautiful dream of Paulo Rodo.
Born in Rome, Paulo, now 34, had spent a decade travelling the world and relying on the generosity of strangers. Once, he traveled across Southeast Asia using a bicycle he’d found abandoned at a hostel.
Another time, he walked 5,000 kilometres from South Africa to Zimbabwe with no money – and set fire to his passport along the way. Around 2010, he was working in a restaurant in Berlin when he met a fellow cook who came from Lamu, the ancient Swahili trade post.
“Lamu, Lamu, Lamu… that’s all I heard for months,” he said. So when it was time to begin a new journey, he headed to Kenya’s coast.
There, he got the idea to build a dhow – to travel the world without thinking about borders, and to help revive a dying tradition. “I had been living thanks to the kindness of the people,” he said. “I was thinking, how can I keep on travelling but also give back?”
A few centuries ago, the distinctive wide wooden boats were a fixture of the East African coastline, and traders relied on them to ferry spices and other goods to and from East Africa. These days, they’ve mostly been replaced by much larger and faster container ships and, for shorter trips, fiberglass. There are only about six large dhows left in Kenya – and all but the Musafir use an engine.
Paulo went to Australia to work as a fisherman, and within a year returned to Kenya with $35,000 to begin financing the building project. He ended up in Kipini – an isolated town south of Lamu that is one of the few active dhow-building centres on the Kenyan coast. There, he lived for two years with three dhow builders and a team of volunteers.
“We cooked around a fire, and our neighbours were a family of hippos. Anything we needed – nails or tools or an ATM – was six hours away.” After two years, the boat was sufficiently sturdy to survive a sail to Kilifi – a far more convenient, and much more fun, base of operations.
Volunteers flowed in, totaling maybe 80 over the next four years. “People were inspired and curious and wanted to be a part of it,” Paulo said.
Early this year, the Musafir made its first official voyage to Shimoni, near the Tanzanian border. Then, over Easter, it took on passengers for the first time – sailing first to Kilifi, then on to Lamu.
“To be able to sail what we’ve built over so many years, it’s just like waiting for a pregnancy and then getting to hug the baby,” Paulo said.
Setting off from Kilifi, the crew included five sailors, all Lamu natives, and travellers from Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, Paraguay, Poland, Australia, the United States and Kenya – a mix of long-term backpackers and Nairobi professionals.
The crew passed the time chopping vegetables for meals and playing cards.
And then there was the incident of the man climbing on board: in the middle of the night, the Musafir nearly collided with a small fishing boat; no damage was done to either but the ropes from each boat got twisted together and, fearing he was about to capsize, one of the sailors came onto the bow of the Musafir.
“In this part of the world, your mind goes immediately to pirates,” one crew member said with a laugh, explaining the commotion. Rasta, one of the Musafir sailors, grabbed the intruder by the scruff of the neck and returned the frightened man to his boat. The voyage continued.
As the dhow pulled into Shela, the crew danced with excitement, calling out “Karibu Lamu!” One of the sailors suggested everyone pose for a picture.
Drunk with excitement, the crew rushed to the stern and formed a couple of rows, looking ahead with beatific, if slightly sea-weary smiles. Suddenly a laugh broke out: everyone was posing and there was no one to take the picture.
Contact musafir.org for information on future trips.
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