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November 16, 2018

Why Lamu Old Town risks losing Unesco World Heritage status

Lamu seafront, Photo Norbert Allan
Lamu seafront, Photo Norbert Allan

Lamu Old Town is on the verge of being struck from the World Heritage site list because it’s being spoiled by too much Western culture, too many boda bodas and too few donkeys.
Old Town was listed by Unesco in 2001 in recognition of its efforts to preserve Swahili culture and heritage. It’s a major tourist site.
Officially, only donkey transport is allowed and intra-island movements only by boats or dhows. The narrow alleyways in the town are only wide enough for human or donkey traffic.
However, the town is now flooded with motorcycles and a few vehicles.
There is also an increased number of stores, stalls and shops along the seafront, violating Unesco requirements. These are some of the reasons Lamu Old Town could be delisted by Unesco if nothing is done to preserve the area culture.
Lamu Cultural Promotional group chair Ghalib Alwy on Monday said the town’s heritage and culture can be eroded by too much westernisation if swift measures are not taken to restore its fading glory.
“We are slowly turning Lamu town into some city in the US or the UK. The sea front is littered with stalls and kiosks. But as long as there is no regulation stopping that, all we can do is wait for the day this town will be delisted because it sure is coming,” Alwy said.
Lamu Tourism executive Dismas Mwasambu said the sudden emergence of Western trends is troubling.
He said the county is considering setting aside a space for motorcyclists. There are over 100 motorcycles and at least 10 vehicles in the town. “As much as the boda boda business has employed hundreds, we are looking for ways to regulate it,” he said.
They could be assigned specific streets away from Old Town.

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