Lamu, Kenya: Making A Comeback Through Tough Times

Story and photos by Tony Mangia (Reprinted from November 2011)

On October 16, 2011, the Kenyan Defense Force launched Operation Linda Nchi —or “Protect the Nation”—and invaded Somalia in response to the random but devastating border raids, kidnappings and murders of innocent civilians and tourists by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

The cities and villages along the northeast running down the Indian Ocean coastline were targets of the insurgents and threatened to strangle an important source of income for the local population. The Kenyan military leaders sent tanks over their northern border to drive out the second largest group of terrorists—after Al-Qaeda—as the world looked on wondering if the normally peaceful Kenyans knew what they were doing.

Foreign news outlets and websites acted as if it was just another case of an ill-equipped and untrained African nation taking on more than they could handle.

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Responding to Operation Linda Nchi , Al-Shabaab cells vowed to retaliate with more attacks against civilians and tourists in Kenya.

Tourism all over Kenya took a huge hit after the sounds of Indian Ocean waves lapping their idyllic white beaches were replaced with the sounds of bombs and screams in the night.

Accusations of religious bias by the Somalis soon followed.

The Kenyan government made it clear they were not at war with Somalia or the religion of Islam, but that they were fighting terrorism—plain and simple—and southern Somalia was the source.

It was 1991 when Somalia’s ruling administration was ousted and the country was divided into warring clans. Since then, Somalia has become a lawless nation rife with violence. Its inability to sustain a stable governing body has turned it into a breeding ground for piracy and terror groups.

Kenyan officials claimed they had every right to cross over into Somalia to protect their own interests because the Al-Shabaab was holding their country’s economy as hostage and the whole Horn of Africa area was in jeopardy.

Joining forces with Kenya were Uganda and Burundi troops in the city of Mogadishu (where they have been fighting for years) and Ethiopia to the west of Somalia. As an allied force, they felt they could surround the terror cell in the outlaw’s stronghold of southern Somalia, an area that hugs the northern boundaries of Kenya, and flush them out.Now, two months after Kenya had its tail pulled too many times and Operation Linda Nchi was set in motion, the proud country claims it did the right thing.

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At Ground Zero of the dispute is a small fishing village called Lamu—situated about 50 miles south of the Somali border— which depends on its jet-setting resort area in Shela to bring tourists and money to their archaic town. Shela is a thirty minute beach walk from Lamu and a hundred years away in comforts like air conditioning and other amenities. Now the picturesque village of Lamu is still trying to recover from the scarlet letter the conflict has placed on its image as a hospitable place to visit.

It was the October 1 kidnapping of a disabled French woman, Marieu Dedieu, on the outskirts of Lamu that started the chain of events for which the simple village would pay dearly without knowing for how long.

Then the murder of a British publisher, David Tebbutt and the abduction of his wife, Judith, three weeks later, by the Al-Shabaab got the Kenyan forces stirring with vengeance as a motivator.

Two grenade attacks in the capital of Nairobi and the Oct.13 kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from the refugee camp in Dadaab by the Al-Shabaab near the Somali border were the last straws. Kenyan tanks began rolling into their northern neighbors territory to quell the violence and save their people and their livelihoods.

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The Kenyans surprised everyone with their aggression and the rest of the world has—for the most part—backed them all the way.

Nobody really knows what’s happening on the battle-front; and few journalists have even been allowed to go to the “front-line,” but since the launch of Operation Linda Nchi, things have been comparatively quiet.

To call the elimination of Al-Shabaab in the northern Kenyan village of Lamu completely over and done with would be premature. There have been recent reports of boatloads of Somali gangs in boats prowling the northern-most coast and Al-Shabaab infiltrating the general population with men disguising themselves in women’s burkas to blend in. On Nov. 24, seven Somali men were arrested after police intercepted their boat speeding towards Lamu before they dumped their weapons overboard.

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Located near the Somali border, Lamu archipelago is three small islands (Manda, Pata, Lamu) off the idyllic blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Its miles of white beaches, warm sunny climate and Swahili culture attract sun-bathers, anthropologists and adventurers alike. The locals depend on three main sources of income—fishing, carpentry and tourism—to spike the economy and now a big chuck of that has disappeared.

The foreigners who support the economy of this small village have now vanished by the boatload.

Kenyan police have blamed the Al-Shabaab militants for the two most publicized attacks and authorities have reported the same group had numerous plans to invade the village other times but were halted.

On September 11, Mr. and Mrs. Tebbutt were attacked at the exclusive Kiwayu resort. Mr. Tebutt was shot dead and his wife was reportedly spotted being taken to Somalia in a speedboat by six armed men.

A motivation for any of the abductions has never been revealed by the Al-Shabaab.

The Kiwayu is the same place frequented by an international roster of celebrities. Monaco’s Princess Caroline, singer Mick Jagger, actor Robert DeNiro and model Naomi Campbell have all visited the resort and where the rich and famous go, so do the cameras and wallets of the paparazzi.

Ms. Dedieu was dragged away by armed gunmen through the cloth doors of her usually worry-free banda (beach house) on the elegant Manda Island near the village of Shela. A shootout with two Kenyan police boats was not enough to thwart the kidnapping.

The incidents set off a panic and released a world-wide stream of bad publicity that the Kenyan government couldn’t sugarcoat.

The U.S. State Department immediately warned American citizens about the risks of traveling to Kenya. Soon, other countries followed suit and the safaris in parks like Maasai Mara and beach resorts such as Malindi along the east coast saw a drop in business, less tourists in their restaurants and bars and a spate of airline and hotel cancellations. Empty restaurant tables and beach chairs seem to be everywhere.

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While the warnings are particularly hard on the Kenyan economy, the debate still rages on whether or not the under-supplied and unorganized Al-Shabaab even have the ability to continue the terror attacks. The militant group has little firepower and is undernourished, but their strength lies in their mobility, knowledge of the terrain and the native population.

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Kenya’s plan was plain and simple—obliterate Al-Shabaab to its core in lawless Somalia and win the hearts and minds of the Somali people, but foreign countries just see war.

The local government and businesses are blaming the governments for acting like Chicken Little and claim that the travel warnings from western countries have made the situation worse.

Many Kenyan businesses ask how many tourists are killed in London or New York without the same repercussions.

The wide-spread feeling around the small shops in Lamu is that the world’s perception of the problems in their tight-knit village has been overblown.

Responding to the charges of over-reacting to the incidents in Lamu, French Ambassador to Kenya Etienne de Poncins said, “When the abduction of Mme. Dedieu occurred—in the heart of the tourist zone in the middle of the night— we were obliged to react and respond.”

The fallout by tourists to the attacks was almost immediate and totally devastating.

Ms. Dedieu’s thatched hut still lies empty and the British neighbors next door packed up and moved out the day after she was hauled away.

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The dirt filled streets of the port of Lamu are reportedly filled with more donkeys than human inhabitants. That means over 20,000 of the beasts roam the narrow alleys of the ceramic-tiled homes which rise up from the inlet that leads to the pristine beaches of the Indian Ocean. The charm of a world long ago still resonates through the Old Town section of Lamu.

One man claimed he stood on one spot of town thirty years ago and said nothing has changed a bit—no street signs, lights or televisions blaring from the glassless windows.

There are no full size roads in Lamu, which is just as well, because there are reportedly only two vehicles are on the entire island. The only way into Lamu from the mainland is by boat. Small planes land on the airstrip on the nearby island of Manda, but hired boat or random passenger ferry is the only way to get to the main town.

There are regular daily flights into Lamu and they are cheap. About 8,000 shillings (80USD) will get you a round-trip almost anywhere in Kenya.

For those wary of small aircraft, there is only one road into the ferry-landing port of Kikoni is by route C-112 and it is an unforgiving, four hour, kidney stone breaking drive over dirt and rocks which pass for a highway. Besides playing Frogger with the families of baboons sunning themselves and herds of Maasai cattle, there are potholes, some which could swallow a small Toyota. A flat tire or busted control arm is a probability, but paying off policeman at the three road blocks lined with battered tire spike-strips is a certainty.

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The ritual at each roadblock is usually the same— a couple of smiling cops with AK-47’s hanging over their camouflaged uniforms and their hands held out. Have your passport ready along with your wallet. A few hundred shillings should be enough to buy them each “lunch” after they allow you to pass through. Note: Do not photograph the police without permission!

The ride might be bumpy but the it is scenic—if you can keep your eyeballs from vibrating. You’ll pass through villages like Timbori and Witu and pass the round mud huts of the Girima tribes and brightly painted mosques before you get to the boat dock at Kikoni.

Lamu is always waiting for more tourists and it is not uncommon for a light-skinned person to be swarmed by young men asking for money or helping you carry your bag off the boats for a few hundred shillings. It can be intimidating if you are not prepared, but you’ll get used to it—you’ll have too.

When you are finally able to wade your way through the branches of begging arms and on to land, every visitor (and believe me, the locals can easily spot every one) will be approached by men who are called “captains.” At first, these persistent men will walk along side of you and spout information about the local museum or facts about the island hoping you will hire them as your guide, whether you like it or not. Annoying as they may first seem, for a few hundred shillings, they can make your day of sightseeing easier and less hassle-free. You might even pick up some interesting historical points as well.

Most locals get angry if you point a camera in their direction and may physically approach and directly scold you. If you don’t like confrontation, your “captain” can tell you who and what to photograph and even get some of the locals to pose without a scowl.

These days, the fighting and the elusive Al-Shabaab are contained on the Somalian side of the border about 50 miles north of Lamu and Kenya wants to keep it that way.

A heavy police and Kenyan military presence is noticeable on the dusty roads of Lamu. Even groups of U.S. Marines can be seen taking in the sights and giving the place a sense of security— even though they will make it clear they are there as non-combat personnel based on a section of Manda and only in the area as advisers to the Kenyan soldiers.

The Kenyan Army, combined with the African Union Force (about 10,000 strong) are keeping the Al-Shabaab at bay and continue to dry up their main supply source—the port village of Kismaayo—about 150 miles north of Lamu.

For now, the predominately Islamic population of Lamu goes about their business as usual. The town more resembles ubiquitous ports of Sicily or Greece than the rest of coastal Kenya. Colorful taxi boats and dry-docked fishing boats contrast with the funky, garbage-strewn beach along the seawall where the fishermen raise and repair the sails of their weathered vessels called “dhows.”

White cement buildings with broken orange tiles rise from the port up the slight hill. Tiny shops and authentic (and inexpensive) cafes and restaurants are everywhere for the adventurous visitor to wander through. Centuries-old Fort Lamu Museum rises in the middle of the market with its beautiful yellow towers. It is the social center of the Islamic people. Events for children and adults are constantly being held and there is a library and archaeology wing to browse.

The town of Shela is to the north of the Old Town. Fine dining and modern hotels and restaurants line the clean, white beach. The most eastern part of Shela is lined with giant mansions— including the scene of the abducted tourist. Until this past summer—and the

ensuing attacks, security was not a priority in this idyllic setting, but now homes have added fences and private security.

These days, things are looking better for Lamu and the whole country of Kenya.

There has been decline in fighting as the Kenyan Defense Force cuts out the supply routes to the al-Shabaab and patrol boats are keeping the waters off the coast safe.

The café bombings throughout Kenya have all but stopped as thousands of Somalian refugees make their way north to the camps in Dadaab and foreign travelers increase their numbers at the ocean resorts and safari parks.

A good barometer of the recovery is the annual Lamu Cultural Festival held over the Nov. 24-27 weekend. Despite all the troubles, it went on as planned and was called a resounding success by local businesses.

Visitors from Europe and Nairobi reportedly filled up to 80% of the hotel rooms during the four-day celebration. More people than expected visited the town and enjoyed local artisans, donkey races and the largest dhow race in Africa.

Soothing “Kayambas”—hand-shaken instruments with seeds inside— were played and dancers from Garissa and Wajir performed traditional Swahili dances like the “Chakacha and Taarab” on stages all weekend.

Everyone agreed that the festival signaled a future as bright as an Indian Ocean sunrise. The Chairman of the Lamu Cultural Promotion Group, Gharib Ahmed Alwy, told The Standard (of Nairobi) that the festival, which came after the two attacks, is a sign of a revival of tourism.

“The festival has brought life and tourists back to Lamu. For the four days, more than 70,000 people including visitors from Nairobi attended,” said Alwy. “It was one of the best in many years.”

The country of Kenya is now happy to report that there has not been a tourist attack since the Operation Linda Nchi began.

The rebound is—hopefully— not short term. Many hotels in Lamu are reporting full occupancy for the upcoming holiday season as tourists return to the sandy beaches and warm climate.

Over the festival weekend, the Lamu Tourism Association was formed saying it would push the marketing of Lamu as a destination to boost tourism.

The travel advisories from western governments haven’t been lifted, but the perception of Lamu is slowly returning back to normal and—even after only two months— it is long overdue.

About tonymangia

reporter/photojournalist
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