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February 23, 2019

Implementation Of Lamu Port Needs Sensitivity

My latest trip to Germany at the end of September felt like time travel in some way: My mum’s apple pie is eternal, of course, but I met up with two friends who I hadn’t seen in many, many years. My dad and I cycled through the fields to visit what used to be my paternal grandparents’ summer house. I spent many summer days playing there, but everything – the house, the neighbourhood – had changed so much that I would have cycled past it. I still recognised the little play house in the back of the seemingly much smaller garden, though, and wished for a time machine so badly.

My mum kept a lot of our old children's books, and the little nieces love them as if they weren't more than 30 years old. (This is from the days when children's publishing was less PC: 'Chicken Licken' ‑ published in 1969 ‑ is a story about a little chicken, Chicken Licken, that fears the sky is falling down when an acorn falls on its head. So Chicken Licken decides to tell the king. On the way to the king, Chicken Licken meets all sorts of other animals ‑ Ducky Lucky, Turkey Lurkey and so on, you get the drift. They all come along to tell the king. Then they meet Foxy Loxy. Foxy Loxy tells them that he'll take them to the king. Except Foxy Loxy takes them back to his fox family and the whole feathery bunch, Chicken Licken and everybody else, gets eaten for dinner. The end!).

Hamburg Port is also woven through my past: When I was a child, it used to be great fun to go on one of the guided boat rides through the port. The captains inevitably regurgitated the same cheesy jokes they had made probably for decades (and still make), but never mind. For years, reaching the outskirts of Hamburg where the Autobahn and the railway tracks led through the port into the city was the sign that we had arrived home. Now my parents live just south of Hamburg and it is the reverse, driving out through the port to go home.

And I’m looking at the port with renewed, grown up interest – a general interest in large-scale logistics, but also an attempt to grasp what Lamu Port might become. Last week, I was in Lamu for a couple of meetings to understand the progress of this project. Lamu Port is, right now, lots of water and a half-finished Ports Authority building, so I was looking for a frame of reference.

We went out to the port site on a speed boat and, once we entered the channel between the mainland and Manda, apart from the boat’s engine, there was just the sound of the waves, a few birds, and the silence of the mangroves. It is hard to imagine what this will be like when the planned 20 berths are completed. And Lamu is supposed to handle cargo ships too large for Mombasa.

However, they will use the channel between Manda and Pate Island, and from Lamu Town water front, you can’t see this. If you’re attached to Lamu’s small-town donkey ramshackleness like I am, then this is a reassuring thought. Hamburg is one of the largest, busiest ports in Europe, but a few kilometres away from it, there’s little to indicate that it’s there. And along the Elbe river – the port is about 100km inland – there are posh residential areas and a bunch of cafes and even small river beaches where people hang out to watch the big ships go past, take the kids to play, walk the dogs, and eat.

Still, if the port plans progress, this will of course be a fundamental change for the whole area. I see two different issues here: For one, yes, if pursued, there will be an impact on the local community, on small fishers, on the environment. And I think this is justifiable if you consider the positive impact of creating more employment (there are already tiny tea shacks next to the construction site) and, more importantly, the impetus it can give to economic development in the north – opening up transport routes and the resultant side effects. I felt this could be incredibly exciting for a region previously so marginalized. But: it goes without saying that this should be handled sensitively, with care and due consideration of those affected, to offer them a reasonable compensation for their loss.

This leads me to my second point: It is unfortunate – although entirely predictable – that smallholders displaced by the ongoing construction have not been compensated yet. We’re talking a couple of hundred people here from what I understand. But then, the Kenyan government does not have a very strong track record at managing large and complex projects (don’t give me Thika Superhighway here: it’s not a super highway, but a biggish road, and the drainage is already so clogged up that it turned into Thika SuperRiver recently). Nor of looking after the poorer of its citizens. Nor of looking after public funds (seems the auditor general wasn’t able to trace one third of 2011/12 expenditures).

I also wonder: If Mombasa actually gets cracking with its port plans, and Tanzania also expands its capacity, maybe Lamu will end up a middling port, not as giant as conceived, but still a productive thoroughfare for goods to the north and crude oil from Uganda and Kenya. And, perhaps, with more limited impact on its immediate environment.

In any case, on my next trip to Hamburg, I will do a boat tour through the port.

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