When may development be considered a dirty word?

By Charles Wanguhu

The town of Lamu began life as a 14th century Swahili settlement and is described in the official tourism website:

“Lamu is a place like no other, a peaceful tropical island where life is lived at it’s own relaxed rhythm. a beautiful place of rolling dunes and endless beaches, where tiny villages nestle among coconut and mango plantations and lateen sailed dhows ply the waters”

Lamu Old Town was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in December 2001. And up to recently the only motor vehicle present on the island was a government owned land rover.

What happens when a sleepy idyllic island is faced with accelerated development? Well the scene is unfolding in Lamu as the Kenyan government plans to build a multi-billion shilling ultra modern port Lamu Port that seeks to tap into the northern frontier with Ethiopia and Southern Sudan. Commercial drilling of oil in Uganda could further increase activity at the new port where a new refinery and the port are slated to be completed by 2016.

One of the other intriguing undercurrents of the Lamu project is a so called “soft competition” between China and Japan.  China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Yang Jiechi while meeting government officials offered a grant of Sh540 million and further committed to contribute towards the construction of the port. Japan on the other hand plans a Sh114 billion investment in 1400 kilometre-long oil export pipeline stretching from Juba, Southern Sudan to the port of Lamu.

There are two schools of thought on the whole project. With those adamant that the building of a port will have a negative impact and the other eagerly awaiting jobs and the much needed infrastructure to the island.

There is genuine fear that most of the eagerly awaited benefits may be more national than for the current dwellers of the island. Low levels of education hinder the enrolment of locals in the more prestigious and lucrative jobs.

With current inhabitants likely to suffer form sharing of the already scarce resources, as it is lamu has inadequate sewage and drainage systems. In addition water scarcity is another challenge with increased salination of wells.

Only time will tell whether development will be a dirty word for Lamu and whether modernisation can live side by side with social and cultural heritage.


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