January 13, 2010

Lamu Journal: Future Kenya Port Threatens Lamu's Livelihood

LAMU, Kenya — The evening call to prayer here is like a summons, for everyone on the island. As the sun dives toward the ocean, the Muslim residents stream into the mosques, little boys wearing impossibly bright white skullcaps, their mothers in diaphanous, black head-to-toe gowns. The last of the bikini-clad tourists pick themselves up from the beach, dust off the powdery sand and head back to the hotel for a drink.

Lamu is one of the last outposts of pure Swahili culture.

Lamu has been like this for decades, a historic seafaring place where modernity has been gracefully folded into traditional culture without completely spoiling it. The snaky alleyways of the island’s old town (which the United Nations recognizes as a World Heritage site), the omnipresent smells of donkey dung and sweetly rotting fruit and the crescent-sailed dhows plying the sea make the island feel like a glass museum case — one with a living culture inside.

But all that may be about to change.

To the dismay of many residents and tourists, the Kenyan government is planning to build the biggest port in East Africa here. It is an ambitious, multibillion-dollar project that could transform trade in this region and knit together Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, eastern Congo and southern Sudan as never before.

Pipelines, rail lines, highways, airports, an oil refinery and extra-deep berths for 21st-century supertankers are all in the blueprints, though it is hard to imagine such infrastructure rising up along this long-neglected stretch of the Kenyan coast, dotted by crumbling ruins and impenetrable mangrove swamps.

The Chinese government, one of the most aggressive investors in Africa, is backing the project and has already begun feasibility studies.

“This is real,” said Chirau Ali Mwakwere, Kenya’s transport minister. “We’ve made tremendous strides toward the realization of what you might call a dream.”

Not a historian’s dream, however.

Lamu is one the last outposts of pure Swahili culture, a throwback to the days of cannons, slaves, spices and sultans who were a mix of Arab and African blood and who ruled the East African coast for hundreds of years. Because it is a small island, reachable only by a short airstrip or a very bumpy road and a ferry, it has been spared the big hotels and development that have swept the port city of Mombasa, Zanzibar and other tourist hotspots in the region.

People here say they are not especially well suited for the mechanized world. There was only one car on the island until recently (the district commissioner’s); now there are just 10. Most things are carried by donkeys, who plod through the alleyways or along the beach with heavy loads and blank, accommodating eyes. This is why many of Lamu’s elders say they think that the port will bring more trouble than good.

“People in the street think they will get jobs,” said Mohamed Athman, who leads a small marine preservation group. “What jobs? We don’t have drivers or crane operators.”

The biggest worry is the environment. Fishing is a lifeline for many of Lamu district’s 85,000 people, and the Kenyan government does not have the greatest record of preserving its natural resources, with raw sewage dumped into Lake Victoria and countless trees chopped down in the Rift Valley. Lamu fishermen fear that the planned dredging of the port will ruin fish breeding grounds.

“They will break the rocks where the fish hide,” said one angler, Mohamed Shabwana. “They will destroy everything.”

Omar Mzee, a former member of Parliament from Lamu, worries about pollution from the port and possible oil spills.

“This is going to be a total mess,” Mr. Mzee said. “The government is thinking of the national G.D.P. This will not benefit Lamu. It never has.”

Lamu has been marginalized for decades, Mr. Mzee said, kept down because the people here are Muslim and coastal, while Kenya, since its independence in 1963, has been ruled by Christian politicians from the highlands. There are few roads out here and few schools. The way residents describe it, Lamu was left to bake in tropical obscurity until tourists started flocking here in substantial numbers in the 1990s, precisely because the area was so underdeveloped and environmentally and culturally pristine. The villages around the island are studies in poverty. There is no electricity and no running water. The houses are built from mud, sticks and string. Malaria is rampant. Many of the children sitting idle in their homes or clutching saggy soccer balls on the beach have their feet chewed up by chigoes, the tiny fleas that lay eggs under people’s toenails.

“The government doesn’t take us seriously,” Mr. Mzee said.

The government says that in this case, it does not have much of a choice. Kenya’s growing economy desperately needs a bigger port, and Mombasa, the current one, cannot be expanded because of natural limitations on the harbor.

Ever since a Swiss firm in the 1970s identified the Lamu area as the best spot in Kenya for a new port, because it is deep and sheltered by a string of islands, the Kenyan government has been trying to raise the money. Now the geopolitics of the region seem to be working in its favor.

Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are all landlocked, with growing economies, and interested in reinvigorating the East African Community. At the same time, southern Sudan is gearing up for independence from northern Sudan in 2011, and southern Sudan’s capital, Juba, is far closer to the Kenyan coast than it is to Sudan’s main port on the Red Sea.

“The Kenya side has a lot of reasons,” said a Chinese diplomat in Kenya who asked to be identified simply as Mr. Liu. “The relevant Chinese companies are now looking into this.”

The proposed site for the port is a few miles away from Lamu island on a desolate stretch of the mainland. But residents of Lamu town fear that the blast radius of the port — the crime, the pollution and the overall seediness — will reach them. Kenyan government officials admit, when pressed, that Lamu and its traditional Muslim culture will be affected.

“Of course it will change,” said Mahmoud Hassan Ali, a port official. “Lifestyle will change and whatever. But if you have faith, you have faith, my friend.”


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