Lamu Old Town risks losing its Unesco world heritage status in part due to the heavy presence of motorcycles and a booming boda boda business.
Amid all the conservation talk, this small but steadily growing community of boda boda operators seems unbothered, as long as they put food on the table.
Residents say the boda boda business has reduced mugging as well as the number of drug abusers, as many youths join the trade to earn a decent living.
Parents say the business has provided jobs to youths who had previously been a security threat due to idleness caused by lack of meaningful employment.
Omar Yusuf of Kashmiri village says many people now walk freely at night, without having to worry about being robbed or even murdered, due to the increased number of motorcyclists operating late into the night.
“The boda boda trade seems to be the solution we were waiting for. Many youths are now employed. We are aware that some of those employed on the boda bodas were part of gangs that would waylay and rob people but now they are making a living,” Yusuf says.
“It’s a relief. The motorcycles have literally lit up villages even at night, making it hard for anyone to be attacked.”
Aboud Lali says the boda boda trade has reduced chances of youths being radicalised, as many can now fend for themselves.
“The police can attest that cases of youth falling prey to terror gangs have gone down, since they can now honourably do boda boda business and make an honest living for themselves,” he says.
TO EAT OR PRESERVE?
All these people agree on the need to preserve the Old Town and have it retain its Unesco status, but they don’t find it proper that this trade, which has become a lifeline, should be cut off.
Boda boda operator Noordin Minjila says, “We love our culture and we would do anything to ensure it stays the same. But after that, what would we feed the hungry mouths we left at home? What of the boys who have found comfort and solace in this venture, away from drugs and radicalisation? That should really count, too. We can’t eat heritage yet we badly need bacon, and this business does that for us.”
Hajji Aboo, another operator, blames the government for a lack of alternatives.
“The government has refused to provide jobs for the youth. I have colleagues here who have diplomas and certificates and have no jobs. This is now our job. We have to survive. Ours is a harsh country, where man eats man and everybody, even our so-called leaders fend only for themselves,” he says.
“Who will fend for us if we lie on the side of heritage? We can’t have them abolish this business. It’s already up and running.”
Lamu Boda Boda Operators Association chairman Mohamed Badi says in fact, they plan on diversifying the venture as much as they can, just like in other counties. He says they need to be recognised by all since theirs isn’t an illegal trade.
“We face the same frustrations others face out there. We work in the same conditions. In fact, Lamu is worse, since many villages are sandy, and that means extra effort. The kanjo here is just like the kanjo in Nairobi and they operate in a similar manner, too. We need recognition and not repression.”
Dumu Kassim says ever since his son was employed as boda boda rider, they can now afford three meals a day, as opposed to previous times, when hunger was their all-time visitor.
“[I’m not against]those making heritage calls, but what do we do with the empty stomachs then? I have the strength to talk today because my son brings home food from this trade daily,” Kassim says.
“We eat well and live well, and that’s all I could ask for, and I don’t think this being a heritage site puts food on my table.”