On Rebuilding Tradition & Culture
Updated: Apr 21
The world as we know it is changing faster than we sometimes care to think about. I’m a bit backward like that choosing to pursue the things that stir my being. Romantic things like rebuilding an ocean-going dhow on Lamu island off the Kenyan coast. The dhow we're rebuilding is called Utamaduni (tradition and culture in Swahili), and we'll be sailing her along the old Swahili trade routes. These old passageways aren’t used any more. Having given way to more *efficient ways of transporting cargo and the heavy duties on trade, making it near impossible for the small to medium business to make a living. In the Old World i.e. The days of Sinbad the sailor and the like whose adventures were gleaned from accounts and stories of sailors of that period, of enterprising Arabs that sailed out of the gulf in scimitar sailed vessels colloquially known as dhows. These ships haven’t changed much over the past few thousand years and here on the East African coast, you can find them as far as Mozambique and as far east as China. They travelled on the dependable monsoon 'tradewinds' that blew from the North East (Kaskazi) for almost half a year and Southerly (Kusi) for the other. The in-between periods of change, characterised by little wind and lots of rain are called the Matalai.
I’ll be honest when I tell you I don’t know why I’m drawn to these boats so much, I just love them. The way they look and move through the water, the wood, the sound of the rigging as it sails along in near silence, slicing through the water. The rich history and culture that they helped shape throughout the Indian Ocean. They were once the steeds of a great and fabulous empire that ruled this part of the world for thousands of years before Vasco Da Gamma rounded the cape and found his way to India. The fact that these vessels are still
used in daily chores ignorant of their great history. Their world and knowledge are slowly disappearing into obscurity. Now only smaller vessels are being made to carry passengers and goods between Islands but the old seafaring vessels are almost gone. That’s why when I heard about Utamaduni from my friend Captain Ali Skanda I jumped at the opportunity.
You see about 5 years ago during a little 2500km walk I did from my home in Cape Town up the East Coast of South Africa to Mozambique. I came across this idea, I don’t know if it had always been there buried in me or if it was given but wham it hit me like a Pearl Jam song. Loud, clear and unmistakably good. SAIL A DHOW! Build and sail a dhow, buy and sail a dhow, get a dhow somehow and sail around trading or just sailing or… why do I love this idea so much…
So I walked and the idea took root and by the time I got to Mozambique, I was ready to get a dhow and keep sailing North. The plan was to sail to India up the Ganges
to Varanasi, and then start walking across the Himalayas to Bethlehem boom. Ok, good and entirely doable plan… Where do you come up with this shit I think sometimes? Well, at least it’s of Biblical scale. You know the trouble with starting on adventures like these is that the journey just keeps going on. It brings up more questions than answers but it introduces one to possibility and oneself, the greatest and most meaningful treasure we can find. That’s what I found, when walking alone on an empty beach I met myself, and you know what I
liked that guy I met. He was alright. He was good company.
And so here we are, rebuilding a boat called Utamaduni which in Swahili means tradition and culture.
Where do tradition and culture fit into a quest of self-exploration? I don’t know but I’m drawn to it and reminded of a quote I came across by a martial arts master: There are two hindrances on the path to self-mastery: Not beginning and not finishing. So on we go and it is with great thanks and a full heart that I give my deepest appreciation to Manda Bay for allowing me to tell the story of Utamaduni’s rebuild and the sailing adventure that we will do in her, maybe not to India but along the old Swahili trade routes. Ali Skanda my friend, master carpenter and boat builder, your kindness and generosity are enormous. Because I want to share this journey I have an incredible team that has come together to help me pull this off: Daron, Carmen, Grace and my best friend Dan, thank you. My child Edan Bahari, more love I have not known. I am whole because of you my son. Thank you for choosing us to be your parents. I will do my best to make this a beautiful story for you to enjoy too. Jen for being his mom and looking after him with your entire being, I can do this because you are his custodian and fierce defender. Thank you.
*efficient in the sense of being faster but not necessarily better for the planet or us as a species. The carbon emissions alone are an argument against our addiction to immediacy.