By Margaretta wa Gacheru (24 March 2020)
It’s not easy to snap a few photographs of Kinooni House and capture the elegance, simplicity and grandeur of a space originally built to be a palace for the Governor of Lamu, who was then the emissary to the Sultan of Zanzibar.
But it is easy to understand why a successful film producer and virtual reality games and film maker like Michel Reilhac would want to own such a spectacular home, even if he didn’t plan to live in Lamu all the year round.
Like so many Europeans who come to Lamu ‘by chance’ Michel arrived some 35 years ago, fell in love with the place and bought a house on the other side of the island which he named Nyumba ya Pumbao. He lived there with his family for a time, commuting between Lamu and either Paris, Berlin or Amsterdam.
But then in 2006, Michel got the chance to buy Kinooni House from the uncle of a dear friend who wanted to sell. “But it was only six years ago, in 2014 that we began renovating the house,” says Michel who adds that he put in the pool on the second floor and the garden, both of which one easily looks out on from the spacious open-air dining room that has an adjoining kitchen and a ceiling that’s meters above what one normally finds in a home that’s not a palace.
In fact, from the outside, one wouldn’t know Kinooni House had such a dazzling interior. But from the moment you step in the front door, you have to be struck by several astonishing things. First, the initial courtyard you meet is open-air like most houses in Lamu. But then, all the walls are pearly white and lustrous. And the ceilings are nearly four and a half meters high, with ceilings featuring parallel mangrove poles. There’s also a pool in the center of the courtyard next to a beautiful tree sprouting up beyond the ceiling and lush potted plants on every corner of the yard.
There’s a staircase leading to an invisible kitchen. But there are also beautiful alcoves covered in white cushions that Michel says is where yoga students came for classes during the Lamu International Yoga Festival which just took place a few weeks ago.
In fact, Michel wants to open up Kinooni House to artists as well as yogis who he feels could make excellent use of his polished coral stone abode that has five floors, each one having incredible views both of Lamu town and the Bay as well as the labyrinthine-styled corridors that take you into chambers where whole families live comfortably and peacefully.
“In the past, the Governor would have been Moslem so there was plenty of space for the women to live in one area of the palace, the men and boys to live in another,” says Michel.
The day we went to see Kinooni, Michel had actually called friends for an Open House since he clearly takes pride in his home. It’s a place that offers one surprise after another. For the courtyard, adjoining alcoves and spacious vestibule that lead you into two vast living areas, are just the beginning. Taking stairs everywhere, one has no idea that five steps up is where you’ll find the gracious green garden and swimming pool. You have already left your shoes at the door. But still it’s something of a surprise to discover that in order to get to the pool, around the garden and up more stairs into the dining area, you have to walk on lust green grass. There are no stepping stones or cement walkways, just grass mixed with healthy green trees, shrubs and even a spice and herb nursery situated beside another set of stairs.
Then walking up and around the open-air staircases and corridors that allow you to see the garden below, one finds spacious bedrooms on every floor along with leafy potted plants. But once you finally reach the top floor, you find Michel’s bedroom where windows look out on all four sides of the room, each window featuring geometric patterns that have a clear Islamic-influence.
Before we take our leave, Michel offers us hors d’hoeuvres and lime juice. By now, he has many visitors so we don’t want to interrupt. But Michel is a perfect host and invites us back in early 2020 when he will have a proper opening of Kinooni House. We assure him, we’ll be there!