We are standing inside Ali Omar’s ‘Ali Lamu’ store in Shella Village, Lamu Island, where various goods including pillows, paintings, bed covers, baskets, jewelry made from shells, wooden home decor items and more are laid out throughout the shop.
“We like to recycle discarded items and use those to create beautiful pieces,” he says as he shows me a wall art of Africa whereby soda bottle tops have been flattened and burned so that they are all black before being glued to a canvas to create a map of Africa. “Our best sellers are however the bags,” he adds.
Today, Ali Lamu bags are sold in shops all over the world including Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Holland, South Africa, US, UK, Nairobi and very soon in Belgium. This is in addition to their online shop which ships products all over the world. This is no mean feat, especially given Ali’s humble beginnings as a fisherman in the island.
“When I was a fisherman, we had issues with trawlers from China and India. I lost my nets about three times because of them and was therefore very broken hearted and was losing all desire to fish,” he says passionately in Swahili.
“In that period, there was a Swiss photographer called Daniella Bleattler who would come to take pictures of us working. She saw how passionate and dedicated I was to my work and suggested we do some business together, although I had no idea what that might be because I really hadn’t gone to school.”
Ali explains that one day he started giving Daniella a history of his family, which led to talking about their culture and way of life. When she asked what was most important to them in their livelihood, the fisherman in him mentioned the dhow sail, without which it would not be possible to go out into the sea and get food or make money to take care of family.
“When making the sails for their boats, our grandfathers used the remaining pieces to make shukas that were sometimes worn as clothes. The fabric also served as bedding and once really old, people would take the cloth and using ink made from the mangrove, would write a message which could then be passed on and sent as a letter,” he says.
Daniella was very fascinated by this and suggested they use the dhow sail to send a message about fishermen. For his first painting, Ali drew a broken heart, and the second was him sitting on his boat at night with trawlers taking his nets. The latter was showcased at an exhibition in Italy. People loved the message, so the duo decided to create more.
“One day I saw some Maasai on the beach with their bags made from cow skin and thought I could do one using the sail”, he says.
“Being a fisherman, I knew four ways of sewing. We made the first one, and I remember wondering what to use for the handle. I decided to just tap into my roots and went with the fishermen’s ropes. The first guest that saw it liked it wanted one, and pretty soon we were making the bags!”
Ali Lamu bags are relatively pricey, with a duffle bag going for about Ksh 18,000 and a smaller double-zipped handbag going for Ksh 5,000, with many more in between. Ali however insists that he is not in it to make money, further explaining the process involved in making a single one.
“Sometimes fishermen bring me their sails and I will pay them. My brother Mohammed also travels all the way to Zanzibar and Pemba, and even Somalia when the border was still open, collecting dhow sails. I have a workshop in Shella where I have a team of about 13 that I’ve been working with for years, and there we shape and paint the bags. I also have a committee of about 30-60 women at my other workshop in Kashmir, Lamu who do all the hand-stitching designs, and a boy manning three of our donkeys will transport them back and forth. So many other people are involved in the process, which is much more detailed, and we all get to eat and take care of our families.”