FIGHTING COVID-19

Social distancing impossible in Lamu's narrow streets

The streets were designed to only allow movement by foot and donkeys.

In Summary
  • The narrow alleys mean it’s impossible to pass through without physical contact with other people.

  • Lamu is among counties that are yet to record a single case of coronavirus.

Residents of Lamu Island are finding it impossible to observe social distancing owing to the narrow streets in the ancient town.

 

Among precautions given by the Ministry of Health to combat coronavirus is for Kenyans to observe a one-meter social distance at all times.

Due to the narrow alleys of the town, movement is only by foot, carts or using donkeys which form part of the town’s storied heritage.

 

The old town was listed by Unesco in 2001 for being a rich reservoir of unique and well-preserved cultures that depict the lives of Africans, Arabs and Indians who inhabited the region in the past.

The narrow alleys mean it’s impossible not to physically go past anyone in the town without coming close.

Lamu is among counties that are yet to record a single case of coronavirus.

There is an existing and active ban on automobiles in the town since 2005 to maintain and protect the culture and heritage of the town.

The ban was also meant to decongest the streets of the old town after it emerged that automobiles were a major cause of traffic on the streets, which remain a huge tourist attraction.

 

Still, the town has to contend with daily human traffic as the growing population on the island scrambles to make use of the few and tiny streets available.

Locals and tourists have expressed their frustration at not being able to maintain the one-metre social distance as most of the streets are always swarmed with hundreds of people who keep rubbing against one another during movement.

 

There are concerns that the situation could easily cause a full-blown outbreak of Covid-19 and the disease would spread faster due to the narrow streets that are always packed.

The situation is normally worse in the morning when people are walking to their workplaces and in the evening when they return or come out of their houses to buy food or got for prayers in the mosques.

Despite the presence of many other communities and religions, Lamu town is predominantly Muslim and the location of most mosques along the narrow streets hasn’t helped the human traffic.

Community elder Ahmed Athman said it is impossible for residents to observe social distancing as the architectural design of the streets doesn’t allow it.

 “People are really trying to observe all precautions of this disease but social distancing is impossible. We don’t want to imagine what can happen if there is an outbreak here. It can spread very fast because of this,” he said.

Community leaders and elders are, however, urging the county government to conduct mass testing so as to ascertain the true scope of the disease in the area.

They have also appealed to the national government to stop the movement of people from Covid-19 hit areas into Lamu.

Elder Muhashiam Famau noted that the county continues to face infrastructural challenges and won't be able to effectively deal with a Covid-19 outbreak.

The fact that Muslims in the town are currently observing the Holy Month of Ramadhan also hasn’t helped matters as the streets are normally full and crowded in the evenings when the faithful come out in their numbers to break the fast.

Despite a recent warnings from clerics and leaders to faithful to avoid eating from the same plate as is the norm during Ramadhan to avoid contracting the coronavirus, the practice continues.

Edited by Henry Makori