A love of adventure drew Philippa Strickland to the ancient island of Lamu, off the Kenyan coast. It was beautiful and captivating but, as she discovered, even paradise has a dark side.

Philippa Strickland on hiking trip image

He seized me with his left arm while his right hand brandished a knife at my throat. I tried to grab it, but the blade sliced across my fingers. I’d first noticed this man moments earlier staring at me as I left a nearby restaurant after breakfast. We were alone on this path. Before I could think or act, everything went black.

When I could see again, I was on the floor and he was straddling me as he adjusted a balaclava on his head. His build was unimposing but, in his right hand, he still held the knife and now pointed the tip of it down at my chest. I wasn’t so much scared as dazed by what I saw, convinced it was a delusion I just had to wait out.

What’s happening?” I asked. Hearing my own voice, I realised this was no dream. The sounds were too clear, the colours too vivid and the smells too intense: the stench of human excrement filled my nostrils. I looked around. I was lying underneath an overturned wooden boat that had been propped against a wall to create a makeshift public toilet. How did I get here?

Confusion and panic overwhelmed me, stunning me into submission. “What do you want from me?” He put his face close to mine. “I only want one thing,” he replied and his eyes darted down to my hips. My heart began to thump, my terror palpable in this closed-off world. I started to plead with him, “Please don’t do this to me.”

He pressed his hand heavily over my mouth and looked piercingly into my eyes: “I have two men out there watching for me. If you make any noise, I will tell them to come here. Do you want one man raping you or three?”

Philippa Strickland with a local woman in east Africa-image

I’d arrived on Lamu Island, off the north-east coast of Kenya, the previous afternoon, September 4, after travelling 24 hours from Nairobi on overcrowded buses along dusty, potholed, dirt roads and, finally, by boat. I was exhausted, but captivated by the beauty of Lamu Town as we entered its port. Described on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as “the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa”, the crumbling architecture lining many of Lamu’s cramped laneways dates back to the 14th century, when the town was established along a major Arab trading route.

With beautiful, white-sand beaches fringing the warm Indian Ocean, car-free streets heaving with life, the aroma of grilled fish drifting along the esplanade and the call to prayer permeating every crevice of its dilapidated buildings, the town made me feel as if I’d been transported back in time. This was everything that excited me about travelling. I dumped my bags at the hotel, grabbed my camera and went out to explore the foreshore as the sun began to set. It was humming with activity: veiled women with children in tow bustled purposefully among the shops, and donkeys lugged loads of cement from boats to building sites as the menfolk ambled from their evening prayers.

I knew this paradise had its dark side, however. In 2011, Somali pirates kidnapped a disabled French woman, Marie Dedieu, from her home on the small island of Manda just west of Lamu; both islands are part of an archipelago lying 100 kilometres south of the Kenya-Somali border. They refused her her daily medications for cancer and heart problems, which resulted in her death, and then attempted to sell her body. Two weeks earlier, a British couple had been abducted further up the coast in Kiwayu. Judith Tebbutt was held for six months before being released for a $1 million ransom; her husband, David, received a fatal shot to the chest as he tried to wrestle with one of the gunmen.

These events had had a significant impact on Lamu’s tourism industry, and although people were gradually starting to return to the island, the restaurants along the foreshore were empty. I was the only guest in my hotel, which my 2010 guide book described as “often full both in and out of season”: it was multi-storeyed with eight rooms sprawled haphazardly over three floors. Run by a friendly local family, it had an open terrace on the roof that overlooked the mosque next door.


As a tall, blonde, 31-year-old white woman, I didn’t go unnoticed in Lamu. In the narrow streets, young men sat in groups drinking tea or playing board games, gesturing for me to join them. Having spent the past nine months in Africa, I’d grown used to the attention and chose to ignore it.

The freedom to explore the world like this was infectious. As a keen photographer, I could be wherever I wanted to be, whenever I wanted to be, just to catch the best light; I could change my plans on a whim. Other travellers would ignite my interest in new destinations or alternative routes, and the friendships I’d made on the road were enduring. Every day was new and exciting and my perspective on the world and my own life had been challenged immeasurably.

Travel had equipped and enriched me in a way my formal education never had. I had backpacked like this for the past 10 years, spending eight or nine months overseas, then returning home to Adelaide to work in order to fund the next trip. Nothing bad had happened to me – yet.

I stared at the knife wedged into the sand next to my head, unable to look at the man looming over me who was now rocking rhythmically back and forth. It was the same sort of knife I used to chop vegetables at home. There was blood pouring from the cut on my hand: it was no toy. Dread collided with confusion, which fused with a constant wish to deny the reality of this situation. This wasn’t me lying here, it was someone else, and I wanted her to know what to do because I didn’t.

I thought about grabbing the knife, but then what? And if he overpowered me? All rational thought was stifled by fear of his every movement. Without the knife in his hand, he had become perversely gentle in his actions. When he saw the blood on my hand, he interrupted his awful rhythm to wipe it with my underwear and apologised for hurting me. His attempts to convince himself that this was something other than what it was infuriated me, yet I decided to act on this fleeting glimpse of humanity. Despite being unmarried, I tried to reason with him, saying, “My husband will kill me if he finds out”, and struggling under his weight.

He clasped one hand over my mouth and pressed the other down on my neck, tightening his grasp until I could scarcely breathe. The aggressor in him left me powerless. He looked around, checking for passers-by or signals from accomplices. I tilted my head to follow his gaze – I wanted to know if there really were other men on lookout – but he yanked it back sharply. Angered, he pulled the knife from the sand and motioned to stab me in the chest with it. “I will kill you,” he whispered menacingly, his eyes threatening through the holes in the balaclava.


Panic and fear enveloped me once again. Nothing had prepared me for this disarray of thoughts, resulting from a deprivation of basic rights or alternatives. I didn’t want to submit to this, but what was I risking otherwise?

Abruptly, he stopped, listened. Was somebody coming? I held my breath and strained to listen through the accelerated beating of my heart thudding in my ears. He yanked up his shorts, snatched the knife and my bag from the sand, crawled out from beneath the boat and was gone. My instinct was to chase him. He had my wallet, camera and lenses – I didn’t want him to get away with any more than he already had. I scrambled out into the path and ran after him. I saw him 100 metres away and then he disappeared, consumed by the sand dunes and vegetation that lay beyond the restaurant. I stopped. What was I doing? This man had a knife. Defeated, I stood in anguish, screaming.

Two young men ran towards me. While my words were lost in translation, my distress was understood and I collapsed on the sand. “We call police,” they said. “Wait.” One of them disappeared around the corner, returning with the couple who owned the restaurant where I’d had breakfast a short time earlier.

“What has happened to you?” questioned the woman, obviously shocked at my appearance: hair tangled with sand and excrement and blood staining the cream shirt and long skirt I was wearing. “He stole everything … and he raped me,” I replied. She covered her mouth in disbelief before stepping forward to embrace me. “The police are on their way,” she said. “We will take you to hospital.”

The Lamu Hospital, serving the island’s 100,000 residents, was a cluster of buildings surrounding an open-air courtyard on the edge of town. I sat in the surgery feeling numb. Had all this really happened?

The young Muslim doctor who treated me was warm, compassionate and worked with a professionalism and focus that contrasted significantly with the modus operandi of the police, who repeatedly knocked on the door, interrupting her examination, to ask me basic questions that they’d forgotten during their initial, muddled interview. They appeared listless and confused.


The doctor’s assessment was methodical and thorough. She carried out blood tests, took swabs and explained in detail how the USAid antiretroviral drugs she was prescribing would work to reduce the risk of infection. While the man’s HIV status was unknown, the prevalence of the virus in Africa, and the devastation it has wrought across the continent, are only too well known. I couldn’t even contemplate what this could mean for me. While I had an Implanon rod inserted under the skin of my upper arm to prevent unwanted pregnancy, I had no control over HIV.

For the next month I would need to take five tablets a day, taken in different combinations, plus a course of antibiotics. Like many drugs, the antiretrovirals are not 100 per cent effective and, after three months, I would need to be tested for HIV. I have yet to undergo this blood test. I choose not to think about the possibility of an unwelcome outcome: I’m not preparing myself for that, for the simple reason that I don’t know how to.

The doctor also addressed my psychological state. “Maybe you are still in shock and this will not hit you until later,” she said. “But remember, this is not your fault and, no matter what happens, you will be okay.” While I wanted to believe her, sitting in a hospital full of strangers, 10,000 kilometres from home, I wasn’t so sure. “Is this common?” I asked.

“For white women, no. But for local women, particularly young girls, yes. I see too many cases.”

The drop in Lamu’s tourist numbers following the events of 2011, and the subsequent rise in unemployment, had apparently taken its toll on this small community. As I sat in the hospital courtyard waiting for the results of blood tests for sexually transmitted diseases, an elderly man approached me. “I’m so sorry this has happened to you,” he said with sincerity. It seemed that news had spread fast. “This is because of the drug problems. This never would have happened before. Lamu is a peaceful place. But do not expect anything from these police.” He lowered his voice, before adding, “They are all involved.”

I was taken back to my hotel to shower and change. In an attempt to steady my nerves, I drank the last of a bottle of red wine I’d bought two days earlier. I returned to the police station later that afternoon feeling calmer and more rational, but infinitely exhausted. The officer who’d been appointed to my case asked the same question posed earlier by his colleagues: “Would you be able to identify this man?” I repeated that, since his face had been covered, this would be difficult. “Well, there is not so much we can do,” he sighed. “But we will try our best.”

He then asked a young officer to chaperone me to the hotel of a friend on the other side of Lamu Town. “I just walked from there,” came the young officer’s lethargic reply. I was too drained to argue or care, so I left alone.


I spent that night with an English friend in her hotel. She’d informed me the previous week that she’d be holidaying on the island, but until now we hadn’t met up. She listened in disbelief as I related my day of horror, which was in sharp contrast to her experience of Lamu – she’d spent days alternately wandering through the town and sunbaking on the beach.

Sitting on her balcony talking, I felt vastly disconnected from the person who’d been lying under the boat only hours before. My ability to relay the incident without emotion or distress was disconcerting to us both, and finally attributed to shock. I slept restlessly next to her, waking frequently to check she was still there and questioning myself about the reality of it all. This was something that happened to other people, not to me.

My friend was visiting the island with a group of former colleagues, one of whom was a journalist now working in Nairobi. He contacted the Kenyan police in the city, and they arranged a meeting that would take place the following morning at the local police station. All chiefs of police and government officials on the island would be there. Although I was sceptical about the efficacy of such a meeting, I agreed to go with the journalist.

I woke up in pain, my muscles remembering the struggle of the day before. The gathering began with an outpouring of condolences and assurances that absolutely everything would be done to find this man and prosecute him. Unfortunately, with few leads to work with, it soon deteriorated into a search for a scapegoat, the finger of blame wandering back and forth between me, for travelling alone, and the restaurant owners; according to the police, they should have employed a guard to monitor the 50-metre public path where the assault had taken place, despite no previous concerns regarding safety in the area.

Once again, I was infuriated. This family had responded to my screams, alerted the police and accompanied me to the hospital. I didn’t want to hear them accused of anything. Enough was enough. I excused myself.

It was time to contact my family and book a flight home to Adelaide. First, I stopped to thank the owners of the restaurant for their kindnesses the day before. “Today it is you,” said the woman with emotion. “Maybe tomorrow it is me.”

I walked back to the hotel with apprehension. What would this predominantly Muslim community think about an uncovered white woman being attacked like this? I needn’t have worried. In an incredible show of solidarity, women I didn’t know stopped to embrace me or to say simply, “We are sorry this has happened to you.”

As the plane took off the next morning, I looked down at the waters of the Indian Ocean, the white sands of the archipelago and the ancient town of Lamu. Its beauty was stunning, but I was relieved to be leaving it behind – for now. I knew I’d be back, though. I loved Africa: its landscapes, its cultures, its people.

As I watched the villages becoming specks in the vast mosaic of Africa, I thought of the women I’d seen in my travels here: the loads they carried, their relentless chores and the children they bore in harsh conditions. What other, unspoken perils did they endure? While I could get on a plane and fly away, they had no option but to stay.

Philippa Strickland-image www.goodgirlsgo (2)

On September 21, after I returned home to Adelaide, insurgents from the Somali militant group al-Shabaab stormed Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, killing more than 60 civilians. I feared the impact this event would have on Kenya’s tourism and the people of Lamu. In regions of the country that relied so heavily on foreign visitors for economic stability, what further knock-on effects would these communities experience?

The gang-rape of a 16-year-old Kenyan schoolgirl in June sparked widespread protest when it was revealed last month that the police response to the violent attack had been to force three of her attackers to cut the grass around the station before releasing them. The police had also urged that the mother “clean her up”, thereby destroying all forensic evidence.

At the end of October, I was told a man had attempted to rape a schoolgirl on Lamu. His build and knife fitted the description I gave. Angry locals caught and beat the man with the intention of lynching him before police intervened. He was taken to hospital under police surveillance. I wasn’t surprised to learn that later, while in their custody, he escaped through a bathroom window.


Henry Sapiecha

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