Faza island fires date back seven centuries

By Maureen Mudi

"Poleni, poleni, ndugu wa Faza, Mungu awape imani, Kuna wengi waliokufa na wengi waliopotea, wengi wana maafa, ya Ilahi tunusuru! (Sorry my brothers and sisters of Faza, God give you faith. There are many who have died, many lost, and many in problems. God help us!)"

Those were the words of Taarabu songbird by Asha Abdow aka Malika Mohammed in 1990 after an inferno destroyed the settlement in Faza.

Twenty years later, the islanders have suffered a similar fate to the one that drew Malika’s sympathy, when another fierce fire razed down houses in Rasini village on Saturday.

A resident of Faza Island looks stunned as he views the destruction caused by the Saturday fire. [PHOTOS: MARUFU MOHAMMED/STANDARD]

Some of the houses that were consumed by fire on Faza, one of the islands in the Lamu archipelago.

Yet, looking back through Faza’s history, it would seem the settlement is built on ashes of fires that destroyed it at various stages of its existence.

For a settlement built on a history of fiercely defending its independence from invaders, it is ironic to suffer destruction through fire, which is always an anticipated danger in this wind-swept archipelago in Lamu district.

Elders of the Bajuni community who inhabit the island will have looked back with an eerie feeling of something similar having happened so many times on the island.

In the 15th century an army from neighbouring Pate razed the settlement after a dispute over water rights. It was again burnt to the ground by the Portuguese in 1586 for collaborating with the Turkish fleet of Amir Ali Bey. On this occasion, almost the entire population was massacred and the head of Faza’s king was taken to Goa, India, preserved in a barrel of salt, to be paraded on the streets.

Tiny island

To this day, as islanders sit by the seaside waiting for the evening tide to recede, they recount stories of fires that have razed the island in the past.

But far from build houses far apart to avoid easy spread of fire, the islanders continue to cluster them together on the tiny island, perhaps as a measure of security in numbers dating back to the days of foreign invaders.

Faza, which is part of the Lamu group of four islands, is further up north near Somalia than the rest. It is home to historical monuments including mosques that are protected by the National Museums of Kenya.

Yesterday, mothers with children strapped to their back could be seen looking forlornly at the expanse of ashes that were once their homes.

Women and children were still in a state of shock while the men tried to search the debris to salvage anything that might have been left behind by the inferno.

Kenya Red Cross Secretary-General Abbas Gullet, whose team was the first to arrive and provide humanitarian assistance, said 430 households were razed by the inferno on Saturday.

For the last three nights more than 2,500 affected people, more than half of the island’s population, were forced to sleep on the floors of mosques and schools on the island.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga flew to the island yesterday and assured residents the Government would set up a fund to rebuilt their razed homes and to support affected families.

Lamu district Principal Chief Jamal Mzee said the fire started from a house where an old man lived with two of her sons who were ill. "One of the boys is paralysed. The mother heard people shouting ‘Fire Fire’ outside her house and when she went out she found it was her house that was burning," he said.

Mzee said the fire could not be stopped because the makuti thatch roofs of all the houses droop close to each other.

"There were strong winds that day and even the coconut trees caught fire and they spread the inferno very fast," he said.

Mzee said that well-wishers have provided enough food for the victims.

Food available

"But still the people of Faza need more help since they don’t even have clothes," he said. "Food is available. Well wishers have responded very well."

When news broke that over half the islanders were left homeless, residents of Mombasa were quick to respond with donations. The Kenya Red Cross Society was the first to respond and was on location on Saturday.

Kisauni MP Hassan Joho donated goods worth Sh3.5 million.

The items donated were cooking oil, 500 mattresses, rice and wheat flour. The Mombasa Mayor Mr Ahmed Mohdhar accompanied the MP.

Joho asked Government to put adequate measures to curb such incidences in future. He also said that the Government has neglected the people living in Lamu district.

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Faza island Lamu district Bajuni National Museums of Kenya Kenya Red Cross