Kenya’s New Port: the End of Lamu’s Cultural Heritage?

Pambazuka News, December 2010

Coastal Kenya 233

Landing on Lamu Island is akin to taking a step back in history. One of the original settlements along the East African coast, the town has retained its rich stone architecture and traditional Swahili culture. Donkeys trot along one of the two main streets of the town, by the water’s edge, laden with heavy sacks. In the town square, residents and visitors perch on stone benches drinking tea until late at night and listening to the local news on the radio. The town has few cars, the most prominent being the rusty three-wheel ambulance parked close to the town’s donkey hospital. Hundreds of fishermen eke out a living at sea with their traditional boats.

Lamu’s old town was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2001 and its charm lies in its uniquely coastal and enduring culture that has escaped the expanding commercialisation quickly taking hold in other parts of the country. A signboard in one of the more expensive hotels along the Lamu coast instructs visitors to ‘tread gently … otherwise, the effect of your presence will destroy this rare and remarkable place.

But the Kenyan government is treading without any caution as it signs into effect an economic deal that could very well herald the end of Lamu as it is now. The multi-billion dollar Lamu Southern Sudan Ethiopia Transport project, LAPSSET, is the government’s latest plan for the area, which will consist of a port on the neighbouring island of Manda Bay, a new road network, an oil refinery and pipeline, an airport and a series of resort cities. According to the government, the aim of the project is part of its grand economic plan, Kenya Vision 2030, to accelerate the country’s transformation into a ‘rapidly industrializing middle-income nation by 2030’. The developments will strategically link the country to oil-rich South Sudan and land-locked Ethiopia and develop the country’s coastal tourism sector for a particularly wealthy clientele.

For residents of Lamu island, the project remains shrouded in mystery and corruption. Many say they were never consulted by the government and only heard about the port’s construction through the media. ‘Truly our government is hiding everything, you know. As you know it’s called serekali – it means high secret. Four or five years ago people came for the exploration of the fuel and the gas. Afterwards they just go and nobody knows what is going on,’ says Hassan, a leader of a youth group that organises dhow trips for tourists.* A firm from Qatar interested in cutting a stake in the project allegedly sat down with the local authorities and then disappeared, adding to the general confusion. The story emerged in 2008 when the Kenyan government was planning to lease 100,000 acres of land to the Qatari government to grow food, in return for funding the port project.[1] More recently, the Chinese government granted President Mwai Kibaki 1.2 billion Kenya shillings in funding for the port.[2] In the Office of the Chairman of the Council of Elders of Lamu, newspaper clippings about the port have been pasted to the wall, emphasising the irony of having to rely on news reports from the city centre to find out what is happening on the island’s doorstep. Indeed, Lamu appears infrequently in the mainstream media and given the project’s size, investment and impact, surprisingly little has been written about the country’s second port.

The relative absence of such a big story in the media is perhaps part of the island’s historic marginalisation from the rest of Kenya as a whole. Journalist Joseph Kipkoetch writes that the government’s expropriation of land in the 1970s for Kikuyu settlers led some Swahilis to believe that this was a deliberate attempt to destroy their economic power.[3] Today, whilst Lamu’s largely Muslim populations are proud of their history, many say that they want to see more government investment in roads, schools and basic infrastructure. The island’s tourist attractions, including marine tours, have done little to benefit surrounding communities. The hotels and private houses cater to the likes of President Barack Obama and the princess of Monaco, while the villages around the island remain extremely poor – residents have no electricity or running water and cases of malaria are widespread.[4] Hotels, lodges and private houses owned by wealthy British, Irish and Italian property owners and costing up to UK£1 million co-exist side by side with the island’s poor residents and fishermen, two separate realities that epitomise Kenya’s status as one of most unequal countries in the world.

But Lamu’s marginalisation from the rest of the country, its apparent inequalities and its up-scale tourism industry are not the only problems the island has had to contend with. US AFRICOM, the US military and counter-terrorism operation, has maintained a constant presence in East Africa for more than a decade. The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), as part of AFRICOM, has been slowly trying to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of East African’s Muslim communities, a strategy all too familiar to Kenyans who lived under British colonial rule.[5] US military officials frequently patrol Lamu island’s narrow streets. With their base on the same island as the proposed port, the military has reportedly been conducting counter-terrorism operations in the region and channelling US foreign aid into projects that one analyst, Mark Bradbury, suggests are simplistic, if not downright patronising.[6] One officer with AFRICOM describes how his colleagues, missionary-like, have been interacting with local communities, building latrines in schools and distributing English books to poor students[7] – a counter-terrorism operation glossed over by clean American goodwill.

In an analysis of AFRICOM, writer Ba Karang explains: ‘It has become clear that the idea was not primarily to fight against Islamic terror, which was said to be growing in influence, but to help expand American military and economic (mainly energy) interests.’[8] Lamu’s residents are well aware of this. ‘Americans they come here because of the border of Somalia, but this is a propaganda time. Americans they want petrol. They pay a lot of money to make schools for the children, but they want something for the future, resources from here. Otherwise, they are not doing anything here,’ says Ali Mahdi, a Lamunian involved in painting and recycling on the island.

The media’s constant preoccupation with Somali pirates in the region, which otherwise has little interest in the quiet island of Lamu, has detracted attention from the stakes of the port project. Many Kenyans believe that the project is already mired in corruption. Jaindi Kisero of Architecture Kenya has said it is astonishing that the Kenyan government, due to its inability to finance such a colossal project, is planning to pay a Japanese consultant an outrageous 3.2 billion shillings in taxpayers money for a feasibility study, only to sell the project to a third party to build it.[9] But Lamu’s residents have plenty of additional reasons to be fearful of the future. The conservation organisation Mangrove Action Project launched an action alert in 2009 which stated that the port’s construction will have devastating consequences on the mangrove forests, coral reefs and critically endangered populations of dugong around the island.[10] Hassan from the island’s youth organisation says that 90 dhow operators depend on tourism for their livelihoods, arranging boat and marine trips to the islands around Lamu. Also a part-time fisherman, he says that the port will decimate the fishing industry that supports hundreds of small-scale fishermen. The fishermen who have lived off the sea their entire lives have no alternative means of livelihood. The port project has also brought into question the contentious issue of land. Residents who do not hold title deeds are afraid they will be displaced without compensation, while investors, keen on their future prospects, are willing to pay up to 10 million shillings for an acre of land.

Demonstrations held in Lamu against the port when the project was announced had little effect on the government’s decision. Environmental activists had hoped that the UN would voice its opposition to the project, given that UNESCO granted the island its status as a World Heritage Site. But Director General Irina Bokova has said that the UN will only monitor the developments and inform the government if the town’s heritage is endangered.[11] It is unclear what evidence the UN will need to make this judgment. Unless more pressure is exerted on the Kenyan government from both within and outside Lamu to stop its destructively ambitious economic project, Lamunians like Hassan have few reasons to be hopeful for the future. ‘Lamu will just become a museum. One day people will come and see a small stone saying ‘here stood Lamu island’.


* Zahra Moloo is an independent journalist from Kenya who focuses on mining and environmental justice issues.
* Names of interviewees have been changed.
* Pambazuka readers are invited to sign the Mangrove Action Project petition.
* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Xan Rice, ‘Qatar Looks to Grow Food in Kenya,’ The Guardian, December 2, 2008,
[2] Mazera Ndurya and Githua Kihara, ‘Kenya: Land Fears as Lamu Port Project Looms,’ All Africa, 3 May 2010,
[3] Joseph Kipkoetch, ‘The Relationship Between Aid and Security in Eastern Africa,’ Alshahid Network, August 2, 2010,
[4] Anna Tyzack, ‘Overseas Property, Laid Back in Lamu,’ The Telegraph, 27 March 2009,
Jeffrey Gettleman, ‘Future Kenya Port Could Mar Pristine Land,’ The New York Times, January 11, 2010,
[5] Sergeant Alec Kleinsmith , ‘Marine Leads Civil Affairs Program for Village in Djibouti,’ US Africa Commant, March 25, 2008,
[6] Mark Bradbury, ‘Do They Think We’re Stupid? Local Perceptions of US ‘Hearts and Minds’ Activities in Kenya,’ 20 July, 2010, AlertNet, Thomson Reuters Foundation,
[7] Thomas P.M Barnett, ‘The Americans Have Landed,’ Esquire, June 27, 2007,
[8] Ba Karang, ‘AFRICOM and the US’s Hidden Battle for Africa,’ Pambazuka News, 5 June 2010,
[9] Jaindi Kisero, ‘Lamu Port May be the Whitest of all White Elephants,’ Architecture Kenya, July 22, 2010,
[10] Mangrove Action Project, ‘Devastating New Port Proposal for the Lamu Archipelago,’ February 9, 2009,
[11] Ashley Lime and Zamzam Tatu, ‘UNESCO Pledges to Protect Lamu’s Heritage Status Even with New Port,’ Daily Nation, November 16, 2010,