For centuries, Lamu’s charm stemmed from its serene life, shielded away from modernity that gave visitors a taste of the ancient times.
The old town has prided itself on its rich cultural diversity; a culture that has withstood the incursion of the Persians, Indians, Europeans, Arabs and even the Chinese who arrived at the archipelago in the 15th century.
But in recent years, the island’s tranquility that wooed writers and researchers putting final touches on their works, is diminishing.
The changes are driven by a disgruntled population of the youth who feel that Lamu’s UNESCO World Heritage site status has not benefited them.
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Beasts of burden
“In the past, strong waves hitting the shores of the ocean was the only noise you could hear and the periodic calls for prayers from a nearby mosque. But now the noise from motorbikes cruising crazily breaks this peace,” said Ahmed Alway, a native of the island.
Previously, donkeys were the only mode of transport on the island, but this is now changing as boda bodas replace the beasts of burden.
“Other than the Kenya Power generator there was no other petrol or diesel powered engine on this island. Now motorbikes are all over,” said Alway.
Ali Skanda, a renown boat builder in the island agrees with these sentiments: “Noise from motorbikes and other social ills that follow the boda boda business has disturbed the island’s calmness.”
Skanda, famed for the construction of the famous Flipflopi boat using plastic waste, has been mobilising locals to collect the waste.
“The amount of waste generated is worrying. The beaches are not as clean as they used to be,” he said.
Residents have also raised concerns about safety of the motorbikes, following recent reports that three children were knocked and killed by speeding bikes and several people injured in various accidents.
Lamu Town Boda boda Association Chairman Bakari Yusuf Abdallah says the only reason motorbikes have been increasing is because most youth are jobless and have turned to them to make a living.
He said the boda boda business employs over 250 youth in Lamu. The operators have also invaded other neighbouring islands such as Manda and Pate. “The boda boda business has expanded and is now the preferred mode of transport by locals. It is faster compared to the donkeys,” said Abdallah.
According to hoteliers, most tourists who visit and stay in Lamu Town cherish the quietness away from the normal hustle and bustle of cities and towns.
Some indigenous people are also up in arms against the motorbikes which they claim have brought about deaths, injuries and encouraged ‘laziness’ and disrespect.
A recent visit by The Sunday Standard to Lamu Town revealed that streets once marked by approximately 3,000 donkeys are now dominated by motorbikes that ferry locals to and from across Shella Island and Lamu using the sea front pavement.
According to Olga Orlova, the general manager of Lamu House Hotel and Apartments, most guests have been complaining of noise from motorbikes and she is afraid that this could have negative effects on tourism.
Orlova who moved from Russia and settled in Lamu five years ago, said most people who come to Lamu want to enjoy the calmness, rich cultural history and festivals.
“There are tourists who have been coming to Lamu for 10 to 20 years and they have fond memories about how Lamu was and how for decades the town did not have a single vehicle, but when the motorbikes started coming into the island, they don’t want to stay here anymore,” said Orlova.
According to the hotel operator, people choose to visit Lamu because this is one of the oldest towns in East Africa and people want to experience the donkey races, cultural festivals and experience the rich history. From here, they can also take a boat ride to Shella and Manda beaches which are equally spectacular,” said Orlova.
She recalls that in Russia’s city of Saint Petersburg, residents protested against the government’s move to erect tall buildings in UNESCO’s protected town. “Yes, a lot is changing and development is coming up but it should not be at the cost of heritage sites. We should keep something original for history,” said Orlova.
Dominic Kivuva the operations manager at Lamu House, they have had instances where guests check out the hotel because of the noise from boda bodas, while other guests inquire about the boda bodas before booking.
“We have had guests checking out of the hotel because of too much noise from the motorbikes. We are losing visitors to other destinations like Zanzibar,” said Kivuva.
He said the uniqueness of Lamu is its quietness and the cultural experience it offers to its visitors.
“In our hotels, we don’t have television sets in our rooms because we believe when you come here you want to experience a different kind of life free of noise and disturbance, but the boda bodas are killing this notion,” said Kivuva.
However, Kenya Tourism Board Public Relations and Corporation Manager Wausi Walya argues that Lamu residents should embrace the mix of modernity as it will benefit them in the long run by creating new jobs and opportunities for them.
Walya said the locals are the custodians of their culture and have the opportunity to protect and preserve their culture amid the changes that come with economic expansion.
“Locals need to embrace the mix of modernity; it will not interfere with the cultural festivals already in place or the uniqueness of dhows, donkey races and the way people live,” said Walya.
We are about to witness more changes that were not part of the Lamu culture therefore residents should take these new things as an improvement and not something bad, added Walya.
Kivulini Planners one of Lamu’s major event organisers official, Wairimu Kanyi, says although the boda bodas have created jobs for the youth, lack of regulation has caused friction between them and hotel stakeholders.
“The boda bodas have brought a lot of mixed feelings. They have created employment to the high number of youth, but this has led to noise pollution for people staying in the old town, and guests accommodated in hotels. Just like other developing towns, having regulations and restricted areas will be beneficial to all,” said Kanyi.