The mixing of those cultures produced the Swahili people and language, as well as an Islamic renaissance of architecture, poetry, and cuisine.
Lamu is regarded as the best preserved Swahili settlement in existence. The history, the remote white beaches, the carved wooden doorways, and the winding alleys, all make it a top Kenya tourist destination.
But change is coming – more drastic than any in Lamu’s history – that could irreversibly transform this ancient place.
Ten miles north, Kenyan authorities are preparing to build a 32-berth container port, the biggest on Africa’s eastern seaboard. Plans for an oil-refinery, a coal power plant, a Las Vegas-style resort city, and an international airport are also on the table.
The port is more than a local endeavor. It is the centerpiece of East Africa’s biggest infrastructure project: Costing an estimated $25 billion, the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transit Corridor (LAPSSET) will include roads, railways, and oil pipelines from Lamu across northern Kenya to Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Uganda.
The idea is to end reliance on the old and inefficient Mombasa port and to open access to East Africa’s landlocked countries from the coast – like Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. It would facilitate the export of agriculture, electricity, and goods to Ethiopia, and be an alternative route for South Sudan’s oil and end that country’s expensive pipeline fees to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
The grand Lamu dream is to give East Africa the infrastructure needed to keep pace with the explosive growth of the region’s population and economy. Neighboring Ethiopia now has 90 million people and an economy growing by 10 percent a year.
In July President Uhuru Kenyatta called Lamu "crucial to ensuring that the region is able to deliver the shared prosperity."
More than a million people, mostly Kenyans, are expected to migrate here over the next two decades, ten times the 2009 census number for the area.
Chinese concessions and job prospects
“This is really a game changer,” says LAPSSET chairman Francis Muthaura in an interview in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. “It’s going to shift the economic activities from the south of the country to the north of the country.”
So far, Kenya’s government has built a towering headquarters building, power substation, police station, and expanded an airport. But the port will dwarf all that. Construction, meaning more jobs, begins any week. The government has set aside a half-billion dollars for a Chinese firm to build the first three berths.
The immense plan for this corner of East Africa raises two questions that often seem at odds: Can Kenyan authorities pull it off? And will the impact on the landscape and the people be positive?
Certainly there is great hope for needed jobs and development. Lamu County – comprising an archipelago and a chunk of forested mainland – is quite impoverished.
Yet locals are torn over a future full of uncertainty. The dynamics of the project, they say, will overwhelm and leave many of them behind, strangers in their own land.
“We will lose our identity,” says Mahmoud Ahmed Abdulkadir, imam of Lamu’s Pwani Mosque, founded in 1370. “We are Muslims. We are Swahili. We have our own culture. We have our own way of life, and all this will disappear with tsunami of port.”
There is fear of lands being stolen, and of environmental harm inflicted on the ancient island as migrants come in and take jobs and give orders.
“There must be positives and negatives,” says Abubaker Mohamed, secretary general of Save Lamu, a coalition of over thirty civil society groups. “There will be investment in Lamu so we anticipate our people will get job opportunities, but the government is talking of these good things only. They are not talking of the negative.”
'We are jobless now'
Ali Skanda might be Lamu’s greatest woodcarver.
He has a handmade dhow in the Smithsonian collection in Washington, and here in Lamu people only need hear to his last name to know his skill. The Skanda family boasts a long line of renowned seremala or carpenters, whose carved doorways and dhows can be found across Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Europe.
“The best college was my father’s workshop,” Skanda says.
Craftsmen like Skanda were a prominent part of Lamu’s once-lucrative tourist economy, but visitors are rare these days. In 2011, Somali militants kidnapped two foreigners on islands north of Lamu. The economy never recovered. Without tourists, Skanda laid off his staff, and is now selling his dhow, a 38-foot craft of teak and mahogany, because the upkeep isn’t worth it. That downturn has affected everyone.
“We are jobless now,” says Abdul, an out-of-work tour guide begging for fishing bait among the old cannons at Lamu’s waterfront. “We just hope this port is going [to] open. When it opens it will get much, much better.”
Indeed, for many here, groundbreaking can't come soon enough – and not just because of the collapse of tourism. Ahmed Hassan, a doctor in rural Lamu County, says he’s lost three patients because his clinic doesn’t have reliable electricity.
“51 years after independence, everything is below par,” he says. “It’s so despicable."
Lamu lags in nearly every category, from education to clean water. The county has no paved roads.
"It is kind of a blessing to have a big project," says Amina Masoud, the top county official for land and infrastructure. "Lamu has been a marginalized region for many years, so we’d like as much as possible to have investment."
Coral reefs and casinos
Yet an influx of money and infrastructure also comes with side effects for the physical and social environment – not all of them necessarily healthy.
Mr. Mohamed, the NGO coordinator, says coral reefs and mangrove forests that will be dredged, but LAPSSET hasn’t provided jobs for boat captains, fishermen, and tour guides who currently depend on those fragile ecosystems.
He says the port may block a vital water channel used by islanders to bring goods by boat to market, patients to hospitals, and children to school. Without the channel, they’ll have to use dangerous ocean routes. "Our boats are small," Mohamed says. "The winds they cannot withstand."
Mohamed worries about vices from the casino city to be built near quiet Muslim towns. Crime is already a problem: thieves have forced him to put locks on his doors, something never needed before. Locals fret that Lamu could become another Mombasa or Dar es Salaam, port cities with heroin addicts and criminal gangs.
More fundamentally, Mohamed fears his culture will disappear when a slow Swahili lifestyle is thrust into modern times. As he speaks, people ride donkeys past through the town’s narrow alleyways. This island still has no cars. Local dialects are already fading, he says; men and women are swapping long robes for modern clothing.
Even ancient ruins haven't been spared. The government began work before conducting a heritage impact assessment, and bulldozers plowed through at least one archaeological site while making a road.
The United Nations body UNESCO warns that Lamu could lose World Heritage status if LAPSSET doesn’t proceed more cautiously. But so far Kenya’s government has refused to take action.
Perhaps most worrying for the locals is a lack of any guarantee of benefits, especially if the project takes off then collapses. Nor are there yet plans for schools and health clinics – the basic infrastructure Dr. Hassan says is needed – even though LAPSSET officials anticipate a city of a million.
Project chairman Muthaura told The Christian Science Monitor the port will “trigger” such development, but couldn’t say how. “If we are planning for that population to come, to be honest with you, we will be overburdening the budget right now,” he said in his Nairobi office.
Landless natives push back
No policy yet exists for hiring locals as laborers or appointing natives to port leadership, either. “The port shall be managed by the best people available, even foreigners,” Muthaura says. “If you give it just for the purpose of favoring [a region] it will be a disaster.”
Activists and the county – akin to a US state – say they’re being ignored, or silenced. This summer, Lamu’s governor was jailed on trumped up terror charges.
“The national government is pushing to realize this project, but all the steps are not being sufficiently done,” says Ms. Masoud, the county official. “They just come and tell us, ‘we’ve brought these people, investors,’ but we are not very much involved.”
As Nairobi officials swoop in and survey the territory – LAPPSET has no office in Lamu – the port project is stirring up long-standing problems and resentments over land.
After independence, Nairobi elites allocated tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural and beachfront land, sometimes illegally, to outsiders. As a result, few indigenous people have title deeds for land that has been used by their families for generations. “We are strangers in our own land,” says Abdulkadir, the imam.
The resentment over land rights turned violent this June, when a series of massacres took the lives of nearly 100 people, mainly Christians, a few hours from the port site. Al Shabab claimed responsibility. But here in Lamu, most people agree that a small cadre of angry, landless natives assisted them.
Nor, to date, have dozens of families been compensated for lands taken three years ago for preliminary port projects. There’s an ongoing tug-of-war between the presidency, the county government, and the national lands commission over who deserves payment.
Farmers fear they’ll lose out in the confusion. “It’s land grabbing,” says Tima Mohamed, whose farm was cut by a newly built access road. “They’ve said we’ll be paid, but we’ve been paid nothing.”
Abdulkadir says if land issues aren’t solved, there could be more violence. “The feeling which many people have is the government is not recognizing us,” he says. “The land is not growing and the population is growing.”