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Pirates, Petroleum and a Paradise Lost

Somali pirates hijack ships, don’t they? Now, they’re targeting beachfront tourists on the idyllic Kenyan island of Lamu. And there’s more in store to disrupt life in paradise.


Mahmoud Omar Maawiya, 52, never went to school. In the mid-1960s, when his friends rose early each day for their lessons, his father took him instead to his workshop to teach him the family trade: preparing and carving dark wood into intricate, beautiful furniture.

The business was reliable, and he proudly practised the skill passed down by generations of men stretching further back along his father's line than he can name. "All my family have done it since they were young," he says.

<p>Photo by Sarah Elliott</p>

Photo by Sarah Elliott

A shorefront on Lamu island.

Today Mahmoud stands surrounded by his life's work: unique chairs, ornate tables, traditional board games. But now each piece is tarnished by dust and neglect. The shop he has run on his own for more than 20 years smells of rot and damp. For the first time he is unable to support his three daughters and six granddaughters.

"It is hard for me to do anything for them. Now I just open my doors and don't expect anything," he says, and he looks from his doorway at other empty shops along the narrow stone lane. A group of local men and women is hovering nearby, awaiting their chance to pitch an offer — a boat ride at sunset, some fabric, a café a few bocks away, a history lesson — to a foreigner, a rare sight these days.

"I have closed my workshop now, I just open this shop," he says. "For six months I have sold only these small things, name plates, welcome signs. I have not sold a piece of furniture for more than six months, not since those very bad incidents happened to those people."

Mahmoud's shop is on Lamu Island, which lies just off the north Kenyan coast. Dhows with homemade sails pass each other on its pristine waterways.

There are no streets here, only walkways. The taxis are boats. Donkeys are ridden by Lamu's children the way others might ride bicycles, and are used to transport goods. There are 6,000 donkeys on the island, tells one local.

Their fishermen hawk their fresh catches door to door — lobster, crab, prawns, squid, huge snapper. The cobbled lanes, whipped by salt and sand, ring from all directions with the call to prayer from mosques that are hundreds of years old.

Lamu Archipelago is a set of islands and inlets in the Indian Ocean, just below Kenya's border with Somalia. Its heart is Lamu Island. Lamu's Old Town is a UNESCO world heritage site: it is the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa, continuously inhabited for more than 700 years.

“No travellers, no tourists because of the kidnappings … Some shops get no customers in a week. We cannot survive.”

According to UNESCO, "The town is characterised by narrow streets and magnificent stone buildings with impressive curved doors, influenced by a unique fusion of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles … The people of Lamu have managed to maintain age-old traditions reinforcing a sense of belonging and social unity."

Lamu's traditional homes are made of white coral, yellowed by the salt, mixed with limestone, sand and water. "No cement," one owner tells me proudly. The dead coral still is harvested by hand, by small communities who live nearby among the thick mangroves. They sell one large house-brick of coral for either 20 shillings (AUD 0.23), or in exchange for a container of drinking water.

Lamu has long been a shining treasure on the East African coast, a powerful draw for tourists as well as Islamic scholars. But last September, something utterly unexpected happened: a regional scourge — pirates linked to nearby Somalia — came knocking at the ancient, sleepy villages of Lamu Archipelago.

A British couple in their 50s was enjoying a vacation on tiny Kiwayu island on the eastern side of the archipelago. Late one September night an armed gang arrived. David Tebbutt was shot and killed; his wife, Judith, was marched to a waiting speedboat and smuggled away to Somalia. She eventually was released in March, amid rumours of a six-figure ransom paid to pirates.

<p>Photo by Sarah Elliott</p>

Photo by Sarah Elliott

A military policeman watches Lamu people.

Less than three weeks later, hostage-takers struck again, this time right in the eye of the archipelago on Manda Island, directly opposite Lamu Island — within swimming distance. A French woman, Marie Dedieu, 66, who was confined to a wheelchair, was snatched from a beachfront home and died a few weeks later in Somalia when they carried her away. Her abductors did not let her take the cancer medication she needed to survive.

Jay Bahadur, author of Deadly Waters: Inside the Hidden World of Somalia's Pirates,says the attacks were unusual for Somali pirates. He says these were opportunists, Kenyan thugs from the mainland, taking advantage of the situation in Somalia and the ransoms being paid to kidnappers.

"Their plan was to sell them to pirate gangs and use their [ransom] negotiators," says Bahadur. "They were sold on to pirate networks."

Bahadur says the kidnappings were used by the Kenyan government to justify its subsequent military incursion into Somalia. The Kenyan navy also boosted its presence between Lamu and pirate strongholds in Somalia. And, in an unprecedented move, its military police now patrol Lamu's ancient alleyways.

“There will be moral and cultural erosion. There will be a lot of casinos, drugs, they will find a way in with the port.”

The response of foreign governments was swift. Several issued travel warnings instructing their respective nationals to stay well clear of Lamu. United States and British embassy warnings have hit tourism on the island particularly hard. Hotels have shut their doors, restaurants are empty.

Azhar Ali, deputy mayor of Lamu, said the impact was devastating. "In Lamu people are suffering … For me, I have never seen such a bad time, speaking economically, than we have seen now.

"Lamu is totally different from anywhere else in the world. You can see that there are no grilles on the houses, there are no guards, there is no electricity fence, there's no arms; this is how Lamu is. You can imagine how peaceful it is, it has stayed this way for centuries while the rest of the world has been changing … Now the government has put more security, there are more patrols and they will be alert all the time," he says.

"We are trying to survive. We are living in the shadow of these terrible things."

<p>Photo by Sarah Elliott</p>

Photo by Sarah Elliott

A Lamu dhow at sunset.

Mohamed Swaleh, 37, has worked as a tourist guide on the island for 13 years. He says, "There is no money for the people. I have a wife and three children I cannot support. I have a 12-year-old boy, and two girls, who are eight and six. They are all at school. After 13 good years working, I cannot pay the fees.

"It is very much worse, the worst it has ever been. No travellers, no tourists because of the kidnappings … Tourism is the main interest of people in Lamu. Some shops get no customers in a week. We cannot survive," he says.

"With tourism everything is okay. Without it there is no industry in Lamu, everything stops. Many hoteliers, they cry. No one has a job that does not need people to come."

Ironically, Mohamed may yet get more than he bargained for. Sadly for traditionalists and local fisherman, the next big change might be an influx of industry and business on a scale never before imagined on the quiet islands, which enjoyed centuries of gradual evolution. In six months pirates have shaken the place to its core; next a new commercial port may change it irrevocably.

“Stay under the water as long as you can and spread out, screw your iPhones.”

The planned Lamu port, costing more than USD5 billion, is for Kenya an economic opportunity propelled by regional strife. Ethiopia, a nation of some 93 million people, is landlocked, with its fierce enemy Eritrea extending a buffer zone along the Red Sea coast. The Sudans are also at each other's throats — oil is the lifeblood of both economies and the recently independent South Sudan wants desperately to ship it away from northern ports and refineries. Kenya stands to benefit.

The Lamu port site — which was formally launched in March in the presence of the presidents of Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan — stands only 10 km from Lamu's Old Town.

Deputy Mayor Ali says the project must be viewed as an opportunity: "It will happen, it is happening. Kenya needs a second port." Ali says they have started building some roads and an administration block. Lamu port is expected to open in 2014.

But some on the island are fighting back. Abubaker El-Amoudy, 60, is a retired school teacher and chairman of Save Lamu, a coalition of groups that came together under one banner to address the port project on behalf of the Lamu community. We spoke in a school he helped launch on the Lamu waterfront.

<p>Photo by Sarah Elliott</p>

Photo by Sarah Elliott

Mahmoud Omar Maawiya, 52, Lamu woodworker.

"Our cultural heritage will be at stake. The language, the entire heritage at stake. It will change Lamu," he says. "There will be moral and cultural erosion. There will be a lot of casinos, drugs, they will find a way in with the port."

In an open letter to the Kenyan minister for local government, Musalia Mudavadi, sent in February, Save Lamu said Lamu's culture and its population of just 101,000 people were under imminent threat from the development.

"A majority of the communities still depend on nature-based livelihoods such as fishing, mangrove cutting, hunting and gathering, pastoralism, farming, eco-tourism operators, and many others. It has been predicted by the 2010 feasibility (study) that the population in Lamu will increase to over 1.25 million people over the period of construction," the letter says.

According to planning documents, the Lamu port is part of a proposed master transport corridor development linking Ethiopia and South Sudan to the Indian Ocean. Costing more than USD20 billion, it would also include an oil refinery, highways, railway lines, an international airport, and a resort city.

<p>Photo by Sarah Elliott</p>

Photo by Sarah Elliott

A large home on Lamu Island.

The Save Lamu coalition say the government is marching ahead without an environmental impact study and already has encroached on farms of Lamu people. "Some of the farms have already been developed. There were permanent trees, like mangoes, cashew nuts and the rest. So we have started the fight now," Abubaker says.

It remains to be seen if the old culture can rediscover its "age-old traditions reinforcing a sense of belonging and social unity", and for how long.

Through political tensions well beyond its sphere of influence, and by economic momentum in a volatile region, Lamu is being remade.

Lamu's community has grown to depend on European tourists who are eager for a beach getaway — a castaway experience. This community is desperate, but a few among them are still cautiously optimistic. The port is yet to swing into full development they say, and money for large projects has a history of going missing in Kenya. In April this year, the United States lifted its travel ban for Lamu Island, though other parts of the archipelago remain off limits. (The British advisory, updated May 1, also eased its advisory for parts of the archipelgo.)

Near the end of my stay in Lamu, I hitched a late ride to the ocean side of the island, sharing a boat taxi with a rare group of fellow visitors: four Americans, one Brit, and a Pole. Gradually our little unlit boat, smelling of dried fish and diesel, began to draw further and further from the quiet shore.

Out in the empty darkness of the waterway, the driver unexpectedly cut the engine. He was talking into his mobile phone, clearly saying "Mzungu, mzungu" (white people), and it seemed as though he was trying to signal our location by holding a flashlight near the water.

Nervously, we squinted into the night in the direction of the ocean. We whispered to each other, making a plan: If another boat without lights approaches us, we all will jump overboard. Someone said: "Stay under the water as long as you can and spread out, screw your iPhones."

Of course, nothing happened. The driver had only cut the engine to hear his conversation, and he was probably explaining to a boss or colleague the job he was doing before returning the boat. But even among tourists who know the improbability of attack and feel sincerely for the plight of local merchants, tales of kidnapping pirates fade slowly.

1 comment on this story
by Juris

Lamu is indeed a magic place. It is so sad to see it suffer and face a doubtful future. As long as 7 years ago, on our first visit, our bus was boarded by armed guards for protection as we approached Lamu. The threat of land based hijackers was real even then. I can see the sides of the various stories and interests but know that it is a truly wicked problem. I am glad I enjoyed Lamu when I did. I will not chance it again.

May 11, 2012 @ 3:50pm
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