My Sleepless Night in Lamu

The jetty in Lamu where one takes the motorboat to the mainland.

The jetty in Lamu where one takes the motorboat to the mainland. [Abdirahim Abass / Sahan Journal]

My older brother Abdinasir is relentless; he is a story hustler, constantly egging me on to write something, to give him “800 words” stories.

He makes it sound so simple. “Simba, since you travel quite often and you take some good photos, why don’t you write something about these trips, something like a travelogue maybe,” he would say.

Simba is my naaneys, a nickname given to me by my father.

My brother’s words rang in my head one restless night in Lamu, Kenya. I tried reading myself to sleep with the aid of Mark Bradbury’s “Becoming Somaliland” and the struggles of a people trying to shape their identity.

Sleep proved elusive. Tossing and turning, trying all the best sleeping positions prescribed for people in my state of mind, I finally settled on one choice. My feet slightly propped on a soft cushion and my head supported by a pillow, I covered my eyes with my left hand, the inner of my elbow joint suspended just above the top bone of my nose and my other hand , curled into a slight fist, supporting my neck.

I let the familiar faces flash by. Faces of people I met, people I had come into contact with by default or design, faces of people long gone. I was left with faint sketches of what the faces looked like.

The writer Abdirahim Abass

The writer Abdirahim Abass

The face of my late father, faint as it were in my memory, stood out from everything that was  clamoring for my attention.

The old man had once married a local Arab woman in Mombasa, so I wondered if the snatches of soft, lilting Swahili voices coming through my window included a relative I did not know of. Could my unknown, imaginative relative be one of the many tour guides hanging around the jetty, waiting for the unfamiliar faces to show up so as to make a kill?

I really can’t tell where this conversation with myself ended and when or if I got sleep before being woken by the soft purr of my cellphone.

A female voice on the other end asks, “Hassan miyaa?” Is this Hassan? I say no in a sleepy voice.

She insists “yaa waaye?” Who is it? I could simply have responded with my name but, irritated by her lack of manners, I quickly hang up. Who was she calling at midnight anyway, the Somali in me thought. I recognized the censorious voice in my mind. It was my father’s.

But the woman’s simple question “yaa waaye” would not leave me. I tossed and turned as I thought about it.

What if I told her about my profession, about my current job and a whole lot of other things. Would that define me? Was I the sum of my experiences, circumstances, and education or more than that?

After what felt like just 40 winks of sleep, I was roused again at around 3 a.m. by loud noises. A rich mixture of foreign accents laden with the sweet melodious, bird-like trills of local women came up towards my window.

I opened the window and leaned out into the warm sea breeze. It was a full moon and the raucous, inebriated party was clearly not in a state to reason with me. I figured even if I tried to shout at them to take it down a few notches to allow me get some sleep they would not listen. I went back in and vowed to lambast the lot on Facebook as a status update the next day.

It was quiet when I woke up a few minutes to 6 a.m. the next morning. My nocturnal tormentors had all dispersed.

I stood before the mirror, toothbrush in hand, staring at my new shaggy look. The trim, gym figure was buried under a new layer of fat and my clean shave replaced by a long beard.  I could discern a new rebellious streak in me.

I took a quick shower and walked out without a care as to how I looked. The normal extra attention to my daily grooming had somehow deserted me.

I headed with my colleague to the jetty so that we could take a motorboat to the mainland where our onward transportation to Garissa awaited.

As the boat roared and surged forward towards the mainland, I took one long last look at the now very familiar jetty as if sealing a promise of return to Lamu.

The sun was trying hard to break free of the dark clouds that held it captive, its golden rays playing games with the unrelenting dark clouds.  Like a trained boxer trying to tire an enemy, the sun weaved, bobbed and ducked between tufts of clouds, sending down one or two powerful jabs of sunlight down to the cold ocean waters that acted like a very excited crowd of spectators.

As the sun climbed higher and moved up the horizon, the clouds followed as if in a conspiracy with it.

Now clear of the clouds, the sun made a momentary stop above as if contemplating its next move.

Sunrise in Lamu

Sunrise in Lamu. [Abdirahim Abass / Sahan Journal]

As I beheld this breathtaking view, I could not help linking it to my own pensive mood the last couple of hours. Was the scene reminiscent of my own struggles and aspirations? Did the sun represent my good nature and the dark clouds the daily demons we struggle with, the excuses, the procrastinations, and complacence.

With all these thoughts and many others playing hide and seek in my head, we were soon out of the boat and onto the car to start our early morning journey. Being a Somali music junky, I switched on the car mp3  player and started singing along to one of my favorite songs.

A colleague handed me another memory stick and said, “We have been listening to music for long, today let us listen to this message.”

I obliged without objection and the Muslim cleric on the stereo started his religious sermon with the story of creation.

“Fifty thousand years before the creation of man, God created the pen and with it He wrote on a tablet the destiny of mankind…”

Ah, the pen! I remembered my brother and his love for stories. I made a mental note to write him about my sleepless night in Lamu.

Abdirahim Abass is a contributor to Sahan Journal. He can be reached at:

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