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September 21, 2017

Cars threaten Lamu Old Town heritage, only donkeys allowed

A woman sweeps a street by a mosque in Lamu town, the main settlement in Lamu./FILE
A woman sweeps a street by a mosque in Lamu town, the main settlement in Lamu./FILE

The number of cars entering Lamu Old Town continues to grow, despite a ban on automobiles in August last year.

Governor Issa Timamy banned personal cars, motorcycles and bicycles from entering the town to preserve its cultural heritage.

Only donkeys and service vehicles are allowed.

The town, on Lamu Island, is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, and has retained its traditions. Lamu is home to about 10,000 people with 50 vehicles.

In 2001, Lamu Old Town was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco in recognition of its unique cultural values.

There are concerns the town is losing its cultural touch as many residents adopt the Western culture.

Residents have also complained that motorists cause accidents on the narrow streets, which they share with pedestrians.

“Several children have been knocked down by speeding motorcycles or scooters. The streets weren’t just meant for automobiles and we only wish people could understand that,” resident Mukhdhar Ahmed said.

“You can no longer walk safely on the streets without having a vehicle or motorcycle miss knocking you down by a whisker. It’s not okay.”

Preserving the town’s heritage has been a major challenge, with fears westernisation will erode its culture.

The town is listed on the World Monuments Watch as being under threat from forces of nature and modernity.

Residents have for decades relied on donkeys as a means of transport because of its narrow streets.

However, the number of automobiles entering Lamu has grown considerably after cabro paving blocks were laid on the town’s streets.

The number of vehicles is believed to be higher than before the ban.

Timamy asked county commissioner Joseph Kanyiri to arrest all automobile owners and confiscate their cars.

He said the ban has not been lifted and anyone who does not comply should be prosecuted.

No arrest though

Timamy asked police to cooperate with county enforcement officers in enforcing the ban.

“Lamu Old Town has tiny and narrow streets only wide enough for people to navigate on foot or by donkey. In addition, this is a heritage site and there is need for it to appear so,” he said.

“A lot has been put in place to ensure the culture of this great old town is preserved. So, we are not going to allow a few individuals to destroy what has taken decades to preserve.”

The governor said the growing number of vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles is not part of the island’s heritage.

The ban is also meant to ease traffic jam. “With these other transport modes, traffic is becoming an unwanted nightmare,” Timamy said last year when announcing the ban.

The only vehicles allowed to operate on the island are Lamu Hospital ambulance, a fire engine and the county garbage truck.

Others include the county commissioner’s official vehicle, motorcycles belonging to the Ministry of Public Health, Water Board, Kenya Power and the Lamu government.

Despite many people violating the ban, and prosecution threats by the county government, no one has been arrested or charged in court.

The Lamu archipelago has more than 65 islands and a coastline that stretches about 130 kilometres.

The town has preserved past cultures that showcase the history of Africans, Arabs, Indians and trade.

Last year Timamy said the county government is taking measures to step up preservation of historic sites, monuments and cultural heritage.

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