Jun 20, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Kenya’s Lamu Island: a political and cultural tug-of-war

Lamu Town, off the eastern shore of Kenya

Doubling as a UNESCO World Heritage site and also the headquarters of a district within Kenya’s Coast Province, Lamu stands at a unique crossroads of culture and politics. It is the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa, and has at various points been ruled by Portugal, Oman, and Britain. Its island location on the eastern edge of the continent also made it for centuries an ideal stop-over point for Indian traders and others from Asia. All of this has endowed the community with a tremendously rich culture, hosting religious, ethnic, and architectural influences from many parts of the world — and all co-existing without issue.

I visited the island this past weekend, not fully conversant on the history but eager to learn how the island has managed to preserve its traditional character. What I discovered, however, is that the community in Lamu feels under siege in a number of areas — economic, political, cultural — and from a number of places — the Kenyan government, Al-Shaabab, and piracy, with the latter two deterring tourism.

A spate of kidnappings by armed pirates near Lamu in the fall of 2011 prompted the State Department to issue a travel restriction to the island, which has since been lifted and replaced by a more mild travel warning. As expected, tourism plummeted, leaving many islanders severely underemployed and nearly destitute. I was told by locals that things have improved somewhat in recent weeks, but it was clear that tourists had not yet forgotten the events of last fall. During my four-day visit I saw exactly six other foreign visitors. My hotel, reasonably priced and in a perfect location near the market, was otherwise completely vacant. Yet the narrow streets were still full of life. The market and local businesses displayed an impressive flow of commerce, and restaurants (of the non-tourist variety) had plenty of locals in seats.

Things indeed seemed to be improving, in spite of the collapse in tourism, until one morning when I visited a small restaurant managed by a western woman who had lived in Lamu for over a decade. The Kenyan government was planning a major port project, she said, set to be constructed adjacent to Lamu on the mainland, a mere five or ten kilometers away. I had heard rumors of a mega port, from some of the material I had read as well as conversations on my way into town. But as it turned out, the project was much larger than I had realized. As part of a collaborative venture with South Sudan and Ethiopia, both of whom are desperately seeking to profit from oil and infrastructure improvements, the port will serve as the final destination of a new oil pipeline from South Sudan, with refineries and chemical plants on location to treat the product before it’s placed on tankers and shipped to various destinations abroad.

The woman, who also helps to lead an advocacy effort to delay the project and narrow its scope, described what she saw as the inevitable consequences of such a project. A district of only 100,000 would possibly quintuple in size as Kenyans from all corners of the country migrate eastward seeking work. The local fishing industry, a source of livelihood for many, would be permanently disrupted as new shipping lanes to and from the port cut into the available fishing areas, and pollute much of those remaining waters as well. But perhaps most damaging, she said, Lamu’s unique culture and intimate community would be destroyed as the area is overrun by people with no sense of connection to, or understanding for, Lamu and its way of life. In a town already reeling from a pirate-induced economic depression, the port for many seems to be the existential threat they face, and community leaders appear set to make the issue their Alamo, a campaign they will wage until the bitter end for fear of the irrevocable damage the port may cause to the Lamu culture that took centuries to cultivate. I spoke to many others during my stay — fisherman, Dhow sailboat captains, restaurant workers, local artisans, and others along the streets — and most voiced similar sentiments and concerns.

Certainly, many stand to benefit from the port project as well. In a fortunate coincidence, I met a businessman on the bus ride up to the town whom I again ran into one night in a local restaurant. He explained that he was making periodic trips to the area to scout land to buy, excited about the possible profit he could make by purchasing inexpensive plots near the future port’s location, which he would then flip after the project begins and the land accrues value. Land speculators — like this gentleman — real estate developers, shipping companies, retail businesses, and utility providers are only a few of the entities that will undoubtedly profit from a new port and the forces it would unleash. The Kenyan government, for obvious reasons, views the project as positive infrastructure that will generate macro-level profit in the form of higher national GDP and long-overdue development of the rural eastern province populated by traditional — and by government standards, unproductive — tribal towns. But Lamu, its community, and the surrounding district deserve a stronger political voice in the planning and implementation of a project that will be imposed upon them for the benefit of people far, far away.

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4 Comments

  • Great piece- nice mix of looking at the impact of macro-level governance on local lifestyles. Which side do you favor? The quaint Lamu community or the potential improvement of Kenyan GDP on a large scale?

    Is anyone talking about the environmental impact of creating this huge oil port?

  • The environmental impact is what jumped out at me and that impact is what will hit the locals the most. If only the world could slow down for awhile…………..

  • The environmental side of things could definitely be damaging. It sounds like the government hasn’t yet done an environmental impact study of the project — which, according to some of the people I spoke to, is supposed to be a requirement before proceeding. But we don’t need a study to know that oil, industrial scale shipping, and chemical plants all create serious hazards to nearby communities.

    An interesting and unintended consequence could also be a larger US and EU naval presence along the Kenyan coast. Shippings lanes to and from the port will be some of the most dangerous in the world, with the large Al-Shaabab and pirate influence from nearby Somalia. A larger international military contingent in the area could exacerbate further some of the issues the town is already worried about.

  • I suspect there is nothing that will stop the government from building the port now. Mombassa isn’t big enough anymore. Lamu is a sensible alternative from a geographic point of view and also has a deep harbor. Modernization is coming to Lamu whether the people there want it or not.

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