HERITAGE AT RISK

Lamu Old Town could lose Unesco status over boda bodas

There are over 200 motorbikes in the town and the number keeps growing.

In Summary
  • The old town was listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2001 owing to its well-preserved culture and heritage spanning decades.

  • Currently, the town has over 200 boda boda operators and at least 10 tuk tuk vehicles, with more expected.

Concerns are growing that Lamu Island could lose its status as a World Heritage Site owing to the increased number of boda boda operators.

The town has witnessed an equally high number of tuk tuk vehicles, which have now joined the bikes in offering modern transport as opposed to the traditional donkeys.

Lamu old town is arguably the most unique and beautiful Swahili town in Kenya, but the increase in boda bodas is fast eroding the efforts to preserve its cultural richness.

The old town was listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2001 owing to its well-preserved culture and heritage spanning decades.

Currently, the town has over 200 boda boda operators and at least 10 tuk tuk vehicles with more expected to add to the burgeoning business.

A World Heritage Site must maintain its originality and resist any form of modern influences especially in architecture, culture and heritage.

The design of the Lamu Old Town only allows for movement by donkeys or on foot. The introduction of motorcycles and tuk tuks not only worsens human traffic but has also eroded the originality of the town’s traditional way of life.

Speaking on Thursday, the principal curator for the National Monuments and Lamu World Heritage site Mohamed Mwenje observed with concern that the lack of effective regulations to contain the boda boda business has become a serious threat to the site.

He revealed that Unesco has raised concerns that Lamu was flouting regulations required of any place listed as a World Heritage Site.

“The status of the Lamu Old Town as a World Heritage Site was up for review following recommendations by Unesco over concerns that the county was not keeping up with the required rules. The major concern is that of boda boda operators," Mwenje said.

The influx of boda bodas has equally affected movement of both locals and tourists as the seafront is now crowded with bikes.

Mwenje urged stakeholders to establish a formula that would ensure the boda boda operators are allowed to work without having a major impact on the heritage site.

“We want a middle ground reached to allow both modernity, tradition and culture to co-exist without affecting each other. We can, for instance, allow them to only operate at certain points so that the riders make a living without necessarily killing the heritage," he said.

In February this year, in a bid to tame the growing trade the riders were among other tough regulations banned from hooting, installing music systems on their bikes and were required to maintain a speed limit of less than 20km per hour.

They were also required to join cooperatives to be allowed to operate, provide proof of age by carrying their ID cards always and wear licensed badges with their full names, a passport size photo and ID number.

They were to also stay away from Lamu Old town and only operate from two designated pick-up and drop-off points at the Milano area and at the Donkey Sanctuary area in Mkomani.

However, over three months after the new regulations were issued, it has been established that not a single rider adheres to any of them.

Edited by Henry Makori