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Boda boda yet another threat to Lamu's heritage

Wednesday March 27 2019

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The Lamu Archipelago, has been one of the most pristine place to visit in Kenya for many years.

The group of Islands known as Lamu were a piece of heaven on earth – Pate, Manda, Kiwayu with the Kiunga Marine National Reserve, have all been an unspoiled and unpolluted corner of Kenya for centuries in recorded history. It was the perfect get away, to write, to rejuvenate, to heal, seek knowledge and even get in touch with ones spirituality.

Lamu Island was a close alternative, the major different being that it is much more populated than the other islands as on it lies the Old Town of Lamu – a Unesco World Heritage Site. Lamu town has a reputation as one of the best preserved examples of a Swahili settlement, with its characteristic narrow streets and religious Islamic festivals. It has been able to maintain her social and cultural integrity while remaining occupied continuously for the last seven hundred years, unlike many coastal Swahili settlements, which have been abandoned.


The first and greatest threat to Lamu was the Lamu Port, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia Transport Corridor project (LAPSSET). It is in the process of creating a huge port on the mainland at Mokoe, very close to Lamu Island. There was great anxiety that the cultural authenticity of the town would be greatly compromised by such a significant developed. An inventory and documentation of Lamu’s intangible cultural heritage commenced in mitigation. This was after intense discussions in which supporters of the LAPSET project, mainly politicians, urged that the World Heritage status cannot feed families. The economic verdict of the project is still out there!

Marine biologists urged that the port would affect the marine ecosystem as the port would require harvest and destruction of mangrove such as dredging to create the proposed berth. Mangrove forests protect coral reefs from waves and the reef support a rich marine ecosystem.

Cultural anthropologist argued that livelihoods would be destroyed as fishing had been a subsistence and economic activity for people of Lamu for the seven hundred years. Fishing was supported by an indigenous technology of boat, sail and trap making.
Government bodies argued that the fishermen would be equipped with better boats to replace the traditional dhows and fishing equipment that would facilitate deep sea fishing. Further it was agreed that after the dredging, the mangrove forests would be replanted. So just like that, as if eco and cultural systems can be recreated at will, the argument for the development of a port and its economic benefits were seen to outweigh the environmental and cultural risks it created.


But there is a new and more deadly silent threat to Lamu ¬ the boda boda. There is a possibility that the peace and beauty of Lamu town is forever lost to those who had not had an opportunity to experience it. In the narrow streets that characterise this settlement, the motorbikes are a life-threatening phenomenon and several people have been knocked over, causing grievous physical and emotional harm.

The design of a Swahili town from thousands of years ago did not have locomotives in mind and for years, it was only the District Commissioner’s Land Rover that could be seen along the sea front. In addition to pollution, the risks caused by the motorbike in a space such as Lamu is probably not worth the economic gain in the short and long term.

The rhetorical hit-back of 'kazi kwa vijana' – for all the riders are the youth - will probably reign. But the whole idea of county governments was to find home-grown economic solutions to specific regions. How Kenyans expected one generic solution to youth unemployment nationally remains a mystery as this phenomenon is replicated in many counties with the same devastating effects?


In Lamu, environmental awareness should have created paid teams that can monitor and replant the mangroves as promised when the development of the port commenced in 2012. Such an activity can create environmental warriors who will protect the fishing. This approach would be skill-based, not capital intensive.

Many of the activities organised during Maulidi and the cultural festivals are based on traditional skills from which some of the youth can earn income such as Swahili poetry, Henna and associated beauty practices and dhow building and sailing. In turn, this wiill retain the tourist revenues that Lamu enjoys, even if it is seasonal.

Tourism supports the numerous guest houses, and hotels and visitors indulge in the intricate Swahili cuisine and will often buy traditional crafts from local enterprises.

Boda Boda has the potential to kill tourism in Lamu if it remains unchecked. It is not quite clear how a few coins in the hands of the youth will support the island.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa