Lamu is one of the oldest human settlements in the world. Founded in the 13th century, it has grown through the interaction of various races, ethnic communities and cultures. Bantus, Arabs, Portuguese, Turks, Indians Persians and Chinese have met, lived together and intermarried on the island. Lamu captures the essence of the Kenya we once hope to live in – where all the people have merged into one cultural and ethnic identity.
Looking at all communities in Kenya today, the people of Lamu are undeniably the original Kenyans. This fact was brought home to me by a local friend when I visited him recently. He asked me who, between me and him, was the indigenous Kenyan. Being of Bantu origin, I said it was I. He then reminded me that the Lamu people permanently settled on the island when my ancestors were still in the Congo forest wondering whether to go south to River Limpopo or north to the Nile.
But for all their significance to the history of this nation, the Lamu people are one of the most short-changed Kenyans in the country’s development. Like the Ogiek of the Rift Valley, they are becoming an inconvenience to what everybody else wants. They face the very real danger of being forgotten and finally overrun by the rest of us and our development plans.
On my recent visit, I saw houses that had collapsed due to old age, and whose ruins remained undisturbed on the floor. Upon inquiry, I was told that the owner had left them because they could not maintain them as required by the National Museums of Kenya.
In 1986, the Swahili settlements in Lamu town at an area known as Mkomani, were declared historical sites under the antiquities and Monuments Acts. It became imperative that the owners maintain them in the same design and architecture they had always had; but many of them could not do this as it was very expensive.
To complicate matters for the people, UN cultural agency UNESCO, in 2001 declared Lamu a world (cultural) heritage site. The value of real estate skyrocketed, and a piece of land that would previously fetch only Sh500,000 now costs as much as Sh10 million.
Everyone in the world now wants a piece of Lamu, making the cost of building increasingly unaffordable. Many locals now sell their land to rich Western investors and the island is becoming a small part of the west. Beach fronts have been bought off, the Swahili houses are being bought off as fast as the owners can sell them and the relevance of Lamu as a cultural site is more and more due to the building rather than the people.
But how do you preserve the culture without preserving the people? Why does it not worry the UN or the National Museums of Kenya that the people are cashing in on their centuries old culture and heritage and that foreigners are increasingly becoming the beneficiaries? Why is it easier to build houses for migrant slum dwellers in urban areas than to help the indigenous Lamu people to maintain their houses and build others to cater for the growing population?
Any account you read on the archipelago has little or no mention of the people, and the residents are commonly referred to as Waswahili although the original inhabitants are Arabs and Swahili. They have in the 20th century been joined by migrant Somali, Indians and Kikuyus. Some of the original inhabitants live on the islands of Faza and Kiwayu where there are no schools, hospitals or police stations. They are cut off from everyone else by many kilometers of water and many cannot afford the treacherous rides in overloaded dhows.