Hassan was our skipper. He’d take us in his dhow out on the Indian Ocean for trips along the Kenya coast, south among the secret wave breaks or north towards Formosa Bay. Once he took my brother on a proper voyage to Lamu island, which needed several days even in calm weather. With his big toe steering the tiller, the full lateen sail over us, Hassan told us about the fabled Bajuni islands north of the Somalia frontier, about whales and ambergris. He could neither read nor write but he could navigate by the stars. When we dropped anchor and jumped into the water to dive among the coral heads, Hassan would lie on the gunwales and to pass the time he sang tarabu Swahili folk songs. Or he bickered with his slightly mad brother Ali, who wore a big afro and talked loudly to himself as he sat with his legs dangling over the bow.
Often Hassan and Ali just stared blankly at the rolling horizon and I wondered what they thought about in their watery world, day after day. Hassan knew the coast and all its reefs and inlets, but had rarely travelled inland. Once he managed to save enough money to go on his pilgrimage to Mecca and when he returned he proudly dyed his beard with red henna to show that he was a real hajji who had visited the holy sites.
Hassan’s vessel Bembea was a coastal dhow, under 30 foot, traditionally used for fishing and carrying mangrove timbers needed for the construction of Swahili homes. Arab-style boats like these had inspired the Portuguese explorers to build their caravels, which could tack against the wind as they advanced around the coast of Africa. In 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived off our town of Malindi. The local sultan turned out with all his knights on horseback to welcome the European mariner, who then kidnapped a navigator named Ahmad bin Majid so that the man could show da Gama a route to the Malabar Coast.