Ali Lamu Upcycles Weathered Dhow Sails into Inspiring Art

recycling, upcycling, poverty, Lamu, Shela, Ali Lamu, Kenya, tanga, art, dhow sails,“This is not a romance story,” Daniella told me during a recent interview. I met the petite woman at her home on Lamu Island in northern Kenya to speak with her husband, Ali Lamu, whose name is synonymous with a brand of upcycled dhow sails or tangas that are now distributed throughout the world.

Daniella first visited this remote island, formerly an Omani protectorate, with her ex-boyfriend. He moved on but she, now brokenhearted, decided to stay on in order to compile a “reportage” of the local fishermen. Which is where the love story begins. As Daniella spent more time with these men of the sea, the free-spirited Swiss woman couldn’t help but sympathize with their new world stresses. And they in turn looked to her to help.

Subsistence fishing has been disturbed by a variety of poorly documented factors along the coast of Kenya. Overfishing, climate change, pollution are  certainly among them, and the situation keeps getting worse as the progress mentality deepens its grip on this east African nation.

There’s not much else to do in the archipelago south of Somalia, though some tribes do depend on disappearing forests for medicine and food, and given that Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tourists are drawn to the ancient Islamic architecture, donkeys, dhow races, mangrove forests and other cultural activities.

recycling, upcycling, poverty, Lamu, Shela, Ali Lamu, Kenya, tanga, art, dhow sails,

But tourism is a shoddy way to sustain a growing population and scores of children end up quitting school early, even Madrasa, according to Ali, because they can’t afford the necessary uniforms.

One day, the fishermen and Daniella were trying to think of a way that they could make some extra money. Daniella suggested someone find a used tanga – just on a whim.

Ali Lamu went away and returned a couple of days later with a weathered sail that had a giant hole in the middle of it. Daniella instantly identified with the fabric, the authenticity which could not be replicated without years of wind and water.

recycling, upcycling, poverty, Lamu, Shela, Ali Lamu, Kenya, tanga, art, dhow sails,“I looked at it and said…this looks just like the hole I have in my heart at the moment, created by the strength and pain of love…,” Daniella wrote on her blog.

So together she and Ali decided to cover the hole with a giant red heart painted with the same paint he uses on the dhow; she then added the words “Love Again Forever Whatever.”

Daniella loved the piece so much she decided to frame it and hung it in her friend’s art shop, and within an hour a pair of American tourists came by and bought it for a staggering some of money. Ali could hardly believe it.

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That was in June, 2008. Five years later and the pair are married and employ roughly 16 full time workers who transform old tangas into bags, wall art, cushions and a series of other inventive designs accompanied with messages of love and peace.

They also arm an arsenal of private individuals with the resources to make their own Ali Lamu products at home, which goes a long way to soften the edge of poverty in Shela especially – the ritzier side of the island inhabited by a series of rich, famous, and notoriously private individuals.

Ali Lamu products are no distributed in several different African and European countries, and continues to spread – all without any marketing.

All images via Tafline Laylin; kindly ask for permission to use them.

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