Charm of Lamu Old Town eroded by mini-skirts, bikes

Tourists enjoy donkey rides in Lamu Old Town. /PRAXIDES CHETI
Tourists enjoy donkey rides in Lamu Old Town. /PRAXIDES CHETI

Lamu Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site and a major tourist attraction, now risks losing its status, all thanks to modernisation.

The town was listed by Unesco in 2001 in recognition of its efforts to preserve its culture and heritage. Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, retaining its traditional functions.

Built with coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is characterised by simple structures, enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors.

It has narrow streets and magnificent stone buildings with impressive carved doors, influenced by a unique fusion of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles.

The structures are well preserved and carry a long history that represents the development of Swahili building technology, based on coral, lime and mangrove poles.

The town allows no other means of transport apart from donkeys, while intra-island movement taking place by boats or dhows. Its narrow alleyways only allow for movement by foot or donkey.

There exists a conservation plan for Lamu Old Town, which is used as a guide in balancing the community’s needs for development and sustaining the architectural values of the town.

However, Lamu Old Town has now been placed on the World Monument Fund Watch list as being under threat from forces of nature and modernity.

Donkeys have been overtaken by motorcycles. /PRAXIDES CHETI


Lamu Old Town at the moment is a far cry from the traditional town it was. The alleyways are now flooded with motorcycles and vehicles. The once beautiful seafront is littered with stalls and shops, a direct contravention of the Unesco town requirements.

Lamu Cultural Promotional Group chair Ghalib Alwy says dressing trends have also been westernised. Culturally, men and women are supposed to put on long loose-fitting tunics, locally know as ‘Dera’.

“Women wear trousers and skimpy dresses and skirts. Our men have joined the bandwagon. They dress in tight jeans and tight shirts. You can actually confuse a man for a woman if not for the bodily

features,” Alwy says.

He warns that the town’s image as a place rich in untainted Swahili culture and heritage risks being washed away. Alwy appealed to the county government to set up regulations to stop further Western trends that could destroy the town’s age-old customs.

“We are slowly turning Lamu town into some city in the US or the UK. Look at the number of motorcycles here. People are literally doing business in the town,” Alwy says.

“The seafront is littered with all manner of stalls and kiosks, but as long as there is no regulation stopping that, all we can do is look and wait for the day this town will be delisted, because it sure is coming.”

Former Lamu governor Issa Timamy banned the use of automobiles in the town to maintain its culture and heritage. The ban was also meant to decongest movement in the streets after it emerged that the automobiles were a major cause of traffic gridlock.

All seemed well until the electioneering period, when the town was flooded with all kinds of vehicles and motorcycles, most of which were being used as campaign tools. The situation has grown worse ever since, with more and more automobiles being ferried into the town on a daily basis.


Also read:

The main entrance to Lamu Old Town is inscribed with a Unesco message. /PRAXIDES CHETI


Lamu Old Town now has an automobile population of over 120, with at least 100 being motorcycles.

The advent of the boda boda business has not done the town any good, either, and since the business seems to be booming, focus has shifted from heritage to financial gain.

Lamu Old Town Boda Boda Association secretary general Mohamed Nassir says, “In fact, we are asking the county government to expand the roads here so we can operate effectively. The streets are so narrow and the bikes have to really squeeze through. They can alternatively set aside some space for us here, where we can operate.”

Lamu Tourism executive Dismas Mwasambu acknowledges the town’s status as a heritage site is under threat. He says the county is, however, considering the probability of setting aside space for boda boda operators to conduct their trade, instead of being left to wander all around the town.

Mwasambu says the county, through the Tourism and Culture department, is also coming up with plans to preserve the town’s legacy. The focus is to ensure the upcoming mega projects in the county do not erode the old town’s heritage and culture.

“We expect that at least 1.5 million people will be coming to Lamu to work in the various mega projects, including the Sh.2.5 trillion Lapsset corridor one and the Sh200 billion coal plant project, once they operationalise,” he says.

“Such a massive influx of people requires us to put up some sort of guard to protect against foreign influence, which can easily seep in and do injustice to the heritage here.”

Mwasambu says a team of experts has so far been formed, comprising county officials and representatives from the Lapsset board and the National Museums of Kenya.

They have been mandated with formulating clear and stringent regulations that will protect Lamu’s heritage from all external influence.

The team has also been tasked with moving around the county to create awareness and reinforce the need and means for locals to preserve and be proud of their heritage.

The county government has also announced plans to set up a Sh6 million cultural centre at Mokowe on the mainland before the end of the year.

Residents fear Lapsset will be bad for Lamu Old Town’s culture and heritage. Lobby groups have also argued that the project violates the cultural life of Lamu.

But Lapsset chair Francis Muthaura and director general Sylvester Kasuku say the project has taken into consideration all the concerns and every single progress at the site is geared towards preserving the heritage.

They say the project designs are also strictly structured to ensure less harm to the environment.

“We want people to rest easy and know that Lapsset is heritage-friendly. The project will not in any way interfere with heritage and culture of this place,” Muthaura said.

“In fact, we are also working to ensure this region as a Unesco site is better than ever before. We are equally observing all environmental principles.”


The Mkunguni Square, just outside Lamu Fort, which is the sole meeting point in Lamu Old Town. /PRAXIDES CHETI


But Athman Hussein, the assistant director for Antiques, Sites and Monuments at the Coast region, says his office has unsuccessfully written to the county a number of times, asking them to remove any elements of modernity threatening the town’s status, including automobiles.

Hussein says their efforts to engage the government and have them demolish any structures along the seafront, including stalls and kiosks, have been futile.

They have also advised the county not to approve any developments that don’t conform to the laws and regulations pertaining to heritage sites and monuments.

“As it is, our organisation cannot enforce, that’s why we can only advise. For the case of Lamu Old Town, we have written numerous times to the county government but there seems to be no willingness to take our concerns seriously,” Hussein says.

“But we shall still do the much we can to save the old town from being delisted by Unesco, because if that happens, it will be a shame not just to Lamu but to the coast and

Kenya, too.”

Lobby groups say the proposed Sh200 billion coal plant set to be built in Lamu will hurt the town’s heritage, and so they want it stopped.

They have sent out appeals to Unesco to intervene and ensure the government does not approve the project.