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What the future holds for Lamu Old Town as new port opens

By Dominic Omondi | May 20th 2021
An old building in Lamu.[Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Lamu Old Town’s alleys, sandwiched by classical buildings, are painfully narrow.

An encounter with a donkey on these pathways is the norm; it is as though the pathways were built to accommodate only the slow-ridden animals.

But today, it is also not unusual to bump into a speeding motorbike, forcing you to pin yourself against the chalky limestone walls.

“These motorbikes have not been of any benefit to us. Instead, they have brought new things that we didn’t know,” says Omar Sharbuti, a resident of Lamu Island.

Sharbuti’s family has been on the island for over 100 years. His grandfather came from Yemen.

“This is not the Lamu that we used to know,” he says.

But Omar should forget the motorbikes. Big ships are coming - thanks to the construction of the Lamu Port, which will be unveiled today by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

There will be tug-boats, berths, container terminals, customs, trucks, railways; docking workers, ship captains, engineers, tax collectors, bankers, traders... all sorts.

The port might change this beacon of Islamic and Swahili culture in a fundamental way.

Already, some of the inhabitants have been forced to abandon their mainstay - fishing. Over 4,700 fishermen will receive close to Sh1.76 billion compensation for the loss of their livelihoods due to the construction of the port.

In our two-day stay on the island, we only saw one automobile that was parked in front of Petley’s Inn like a sculpture.

An aging blue sedan, it looked as though it was first placed there to amuse the residents, only to be abandoned when the watchers had their fill.

The island is said to have only two cars: The district commissioner’s official vehicle and an ambulance.

We were told that tri-cycles (tuk-tuks) had also found their way to the island, but we did not see one.  

Lamu Port, which will set off a flurry of economic activities, is part of a Sh2.7 trillion Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) corridor that includes roads, rail, industrial park and airports.

Lapsset, critics fear, might be the coup de grace for the island’s 700-year cultural heritage. 

For the seven centuries that people have settled on Lamu Old Town, it has resisted all kinds of ‘foreign’ incursions, retaining its heritage as East Africa’s beacon of Islamic and Swahili culture.  

Instead, the island’s culture and architecture have gracefully been shaped by the best of Arabic, Bantu, European and Indian influences.   

Listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) for being the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, Lamu Old Town has not been ensnared by the allure of modernism.

The construction of the port and cruise ship berth, according to Unesco, is one of the threats to Lamu’s cultural heritage.

Other threats, said the UN body, include the mushrooming of informal settlements in the setting of the property, encroachment and illegal development on the sand dunes water catchment area, and oil exploration.

Mohammed Mwenje, the curator of Lamu Museums and World Heritage Site, says the county government is the one tasked with ensuring that the island does not lose its heritage.  

“It is expected to actually service this project that has come in so many ways including development controls and providing most of the services that are going to be required,” he told Real Estate.

“By all means the county government of Lamu must be enabled to have all those things in place so that they can properly buffer this town.”

He says Lamu is not big and it is not difficult to manage it.

An old building in Lamu.[Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

The fear of the architectural design losing its character is better addressed by the county government.

“All these fears that we are talking about, as much as they can touch other sectors, the principal actor is the county,” he says.

“It is true that there will definitely be some interactions, and these are things which we have tried to look at with the support of Unesco at one point, which resulted into the heritage impact assessment for Lamu in light of the first three berths.”

He says some of the interactions are “spillovers”.

“Of course, people coming into the port are expected to interact with the island, but those issues are long term,” Mwenje says.

The port is likely to trigger a wave of migration to the island by people whose lives, unlike the unhurried manner of the residents, are dictated by the clock.

In years to come, the young boys that stick around the seafront idly chewing khat will cast their eyes across the ocean to Manda Island and marvel at the night glow of the New Lamu Industrial City, which is also part of Lapsset.

Which one will win them over: the historical richness of Lamu Old Town or the futuristic New Lamu Industrial City?

Will it be the small Dukas that sell a few basic items or the mall in the smart city that will stock some of the most expensive cognacs?

Bernard Osoro, the head of corporate communication at Kenya Ports Authority (KPA), who is also in charge of the compensation fund for the fishermen, says that while KPA is doing a lot to ensure that the heritage of the island remains intact, some changes might be difficult to resist.

He gives the example of the 100 youth from the island that they have recruited as dock workers.

“They will interact with different people with different cultures, at some point they may be transferred to Nairobi,” says Mr Osoro.

The Old Town has simple structural forms which have been enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors.

The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas provide a unified visual impression of the town when approaching it from the sea.

That some outside influence has gradually been chipping away at this cultural bastion is evident among a group of well-groomed young boys playing poker at the beach.

One of them wears clean dreadlocks, a dark blue jeans matched with a white Polo t-shirt. But he has nothing on his feet.  

A true resident of Lamu, one of the boat riders told us as we settled into his speedboat for a five-minute ride from Manda Airstrip to Lamu Island, does not put on shoes.

Some 10 years ago, visitors would be taken to the island by sailboats made of wood, said Omar. Those were the only boats around.

And for the rest of the journey, they walked on foot through the labyrinthine alleys of the island.

Today, if you land at Manda Airstrip, you will take a speed boat which will get you to the island in less than five minutes. Sailboats have been left to fishing activities.

The first bank to land here was Standard Chartered Bank, which has since exited. But over time, there has been an influx of other banks as economic activities have picked up.

KCB, Equity, Diamond Trust, ABC and Gulf banks are all there. The taxman is also lying in wait.

With 25 mosques, the 16-acre island has probably one of the highest numbers of mosques per square kilometre. 

Lamu Island has repelled several incursions, from the Mazrui’s in the 19th Century to the Lamu Coal Plant in the 21st century.  

It appears, though, that there is no present danger of the port.

If anything, proponents of the port say the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.  


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