Kenya’s planned port threatens Swahili culture

Kenya’s planned port threatens Swahili culture

In East Africa, a multi-billion-dollar supertanker port is being planned for Lamu on the coast of Kenya. The massive project would give a boost to the isolated area and forge economic links between countries in the region. The plan includes proposed oil pipelines, motorways and railroads, linking Lamu with Southern Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. But the big changes also threaten one of the last strongholds of traditional Swahili culture – a mixture of Arab and African cultures dating back from trade between Africa and the Middle East in the 9th Century. From Lamu, Kenya, Matthew Brunwasser reports.

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MARCO WERMAN: A multi-billion-dollar port for supertankers is being planned for the town of Lamu, on the coast of Kenya. The project would provide a boost for the isolated area. It includes plans for oil pipelines, motorways, and railroads, which would link Kenya with southern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda. But the changes could threaten one of the last strongholds of Swahili culture. That’s a mixture of Arab and African traditions that dates back more than a thousand years. Matthew Brunwasser reports on the growing pains of this African seaport.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER:  The narrow stone streets of Lamu have reverberated with the Islamic call to prayer for a thousand years, since Arabs first traded and settled here. UNESCO named the old town a world heritage site, meaning its traditional Swahili culture is important to all of mankind, not just locals. The exquisite architecture hints at the golden age of trade that once flourished here. Today, Lamu is known more for isolation and poverty. Time moves slowly. Donkeys provide the main transport for people and goods. Women bob down the streets in flowing black gowns, their faces covered in black veils. Mohammed Khatib is a member of Lamu’s time-honored council of elders.


BRUNWASSER:  Khatib says Lamu’s designation as a world heritage site isn’t just about the old buildings. It’s about the traditions, the way of life, the clothing and the goodness of the people. He worries the port project will rob Lamu of its meaning, as the town is swallowed up by outsiders who don’t appreciate Lamu’s special culture. Locals agree that safeguards need to be taken. Education, building restoration, protecting traditional crafts, festivals and games. Just ask the men playing bao, an ancient Swahili game played on a wooden board with stones. Sitting on cushions along the seafront, these men spend hours throwing little bao stones and discussing the issues of the day, much as they have for centuries.

MOHAMMAD OMAR: It will change. Something will disappear from the culture. This is definitely.


BRUNWASSER: Fisherman Mohammad Omar says tourism has already brought change to Lamu, and having East Africa’s biggest port next door surely will too. He says many expect the worst. If nothing else, the port will likely decrease fish numbers and most here are fishermen.

OMAR: And if they will not be able to go fishing, they will be beggars. This could be something dangerous. And the ones who will be lucky to have a job at the harbor, they will not have the time to play bao. The bao will be disappear.

BRUNWASSER: Traditional values here are largely Islamic values. After services at the local mosque, worshipper Said Abdallah laments that many locals do support the port project.

SAID ABDALLAH: They’re just looking on the economic part of it only, they don’t go deep into seeing cultural way of life of the people of Lamu. There’s a lot of evils doing here now because every Tom, Dick and Harry will come.

BRUNWASSER: Abdallah says the tension here is religious as well as tribal. A further influx of outsiders could make local Bajunis an ethnic minority. How jobs are assigned in the port project will be seen through the prism of Kenya’s complex tribal politics, which exploded three years ago in election violence.

ABDALLAH: Otherwise coming to port is a blessing to the people of Lamu, if people of Lamu get the right share of the cake.

BRUNWASSER: At Slim’s Silver Shop, Mbarack Omar does expect business to get better, but hand in hand with drunkenness, prostitution and other immorality that ports attract.

MBARACK OMAR: Everything, bad thing it will come to Lamu. We’ll have business, business will be okay but the culture of Lamu will disappear, because people will have a lot of money.

BRUNWASSER: Westerners in bathing suits and flip-flops are already a common site on Lamu’s dusty streets and Omar doesn’t like it. At the prime minister’s office in Nairobi, infrastructure advisor Silvester Kasuku says he doesn’t understand all the fuss about protecting Lamu from the port.

SILVESTER KIKUYU: Infrastructure is known to attract investment and energize local economy, developments. Lamu people are not just found in Lamu alone, they are part of the world economic order, so I wouldn’t understand how the Lamu people would turn into minorities. They are not some kind of caged species.

BRUNWASSER: Locals admit there is not much they can do to stop the project if and when Nairobi moves ahead. The national media is swirling with stories about proposed international infrastructure for the port and sources of foreign finance. The fight over the details appears to have begun. Lamuans hope they’ll get the fair share they feel they’ve long been denied. For The World, I’m Matthew Brunwasser, Lamu, Kenya.





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