Kenyan island resists intrusions on its identity Hotels could mean an influx of tourists

January 12, 1992|By New York Times News Service

LAMU, Kenya -- In many ways, this island in the Indian Ocean still resembles the city-state that prospered in the 18th and 19th centuries from sea trade with Arabia and established a flourishing example of the Swahili culture.

The people here, known as Swahili from the melding of Arabs and indigenous Africans, have done much to preserve the traditional way of life.

Dhows still ply the waters, and three dozen mosques, one dating to 1370, are well attended.

The muezzin's cry echoes at dawn through stone alleys wide enough for donkeys but too narrow for cars. The only vehicle on this island of 20,000 people belongs to the district commissioner.

A few impositions from the West have blended in. Inexpensive boarding houses attract budget travelers, but not too many of them. The beach boys who man the dhows grow plaits and peroxide their tips in memory of Bob Marley. The reggae music is kept discreetly low.

But now, some longtime residents say that the character of Lamu, a slower-paced version of Zanzibar, the Tanzanian island to the south, is threatened. Suddenly, two new hotels have appeared on the waterfront. By most standards they are modest buildings of three stories and reflect Swahili architecture with traditional styled arches and whitewashed exteriors.

What rankles the local residents is an apparent flouting of zoning procedures and the effect of beach tourists on the integrity of their Islamic traditions that demand no alcohol and modesty in dress. Lamu women are clad in head-to-toe black Islamic dress, known here as buibui.

"Building such a hotel in front of this Islamic village where beer and other vices will be peddled is an insult to the local people," said Philip Katana, conservator of the Lamu Museum and one of the chief critics of the Sheik Ya Shella Hotel.

"There is a real conflict between the different values of the locals and the visitors," he said. "The young people get tempted, that's what people are complaining about."

As Mr. Katana talked near the shore of Shella beach, where the new hotel juts out onto the sand, a fisherman gently advised a young European sunbather to drape something around her nearly nude body.

Beyond the brash culture that the new Sheik Ya Shella Hotel, with its bargain-priced beer, represents, its construction across a broad swath of beachfront interferes with daily commerce by obstructing the landing area of local boatmen.

Ali Omar, a fisherman, said he used to bring his catch to the sands where the hotel now stands and other boatmen brought coral stones used for construction.

"We have nothing against foreigners," Mr. Omar said. "But now we are becoming wary of strangers who come here pretending to be innocent only to realize they are looking for ways to grab a plot of land."

A second hotel -- named, to the annoyance of the local residents, Paradise Hotel -- has just been completed on the waterfront in the center of the town. Mr. Katana said the building was too big and out of proportion for the size of the land.

For historic reasons, Mr. Katana said, it is important to preserve Lamu in as natural state as possible. It is the most authentic of three extant Swahili towns designated as national monuments by the Kenyan government, he said. The other two are the old stone town of Kenya's chief port city, Mombasa, and Pate, a small collection of dwellings on Pate Island, to the north of Lamu.

Indeed, Mr. Katana said he believed that Lamu is one of the best examples of the Swahili culture along the entire Swahili coast that stretches from war-ravaged Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in the north, to Mozambique, in the south.

"There's no other culture in Kenya that we know of that goes back as far as the Swahili culture," Mr. Katana said. "And this is one of the superior cultures -- the fact they came up with towns, shows that."

On nearby Pate Island, at a place called Shanga, archaeologists have found evidence of mud mosques dating back to the eighth century, Mr. Katana said. Lamu is thought to have existed by 1300, with the remnants of a settlement now buried under sand dunes at the south end of Lamu town.

In the early 1800s, the sultan of Oman conquered Lamu, built an imposing fort that still stands in the center of the town and used the island as a foothold from which to take Zanzibar.

The Omani sultans stayed in power until the British declared Kenya a protectorate in 1895. But the British ignored Lamu and left a puppet sultan in place until the 1920s.

As in many unsullied places across the world where possible profits suddenly loom, the construction of the Sheik Ya Shella Hotel was approved by the "politicians instead of the technicians," Mr. Katana said.

To curb the temptations offered to elected politicians by potential developers, the Kenyan government has agreed to set up a new planning commission of technical civil servants through which all such proposals must pass, the curator said.

"In any case, there is a lot of free beach land along the coast and on nearby Manda Island which is ideal for hotels and which would not hurt anyone," Mr. Katana said.

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