Remember those old men of Lamu? Them with the long white beards and faces carved by the sea’s tough hands? The ones who used to huddle by the seafront at night, sipping kahawa chungu from steaming tiny tin mugs and staring out into the sea with faded nostalgic grins? They are no longer there. Remember the groups of boys who would walk up and down the seafront, chattering and mucking about from dusk until late? Gone. What about the bright hubbub of the seafront at night; coloured lights and taarab music spilling out from the restaurants, buibui-clad women rushing home, their gazes fixed firmly on the road? All gone.
Now, at 9pm the curfew kicks in, and everything shuts down. Everything. Even the dogs of Lamu – man’s best friends- refuse to stay out. After 9pm the streets become vacant. It’s as if a bad omen swept through the island and everybody bundled out in a huff. The narrow corridors of Lamu suddenly become ghostly and ominous. Cats dart restlessly across the street. All you hear are the muffled sounds of humans inside their homes shuffling about like caged beings, their shadows leaping against the windows like a freak-show. But mostly it’s the silence that grabs your throat. It is consistent, sustained and heavy, like a thick folded towel covering your nose. After 9pm Lamu becomes a graveyard of old civilization.
I was staying at Lamu House Hotel, one of the finest in Lamu Town. In the whole hotel, we were the only guests – our team of three from last week’s Safaricom assignment. It felt like living in a house abandoned at war. The previous guests before us were the Second Lady and her entourage. Before them, nobody had come for a long time. Frank, the proprietor, told me that business is down 95%. “If it continues this way I will close down in January and try out elsewhere,” he sighed. It won’t be surprising; four hotels have already closed down in Lamu in the past couple of months.
I recall standing at my room’s balcony looking out onto the seafront, which at 10pm was deathly still. The only sounds were the lapping of waves against the jetty and the creaking of boats moored ashore. There were no voices. There were no shadows. The humans were locked away. At night only the Government of Kenya is allowed to walk the streets of Lamu. Once in a while, a group of heavily armed military chaps wearing green bush-hats would soundlessly stroll down the seafront, smoking cigarettes, their eyes keenly scanning the corridors. It’s surreal what’s going on. Lamu feels molested.
I have been to Lamu five times. Maybe even six. I have never seen Lamu as distressed as it is now. Even though it was low season, you couldn’t ignore the sheer desperation and emptiness of it all. Hotels were closed, grass growing on their front yards. Small wooden gates leading into hotels remained locked. Everybody supported by tourism (almost all of Lamu is) had long been sent home to try their hand at something else. Folk who got work at the seafront have had to find sources of income further inland in the villages, like fish driven from sea to land now forced to live on trees. The seafood restaurants that used to do brisk business hardly have any customers in them. The whole time we were down, I counted only two mzungus. Amidst all this despair, the greatest mockery perhaps came in the form of a huge banner – a remnant of the last political campaigns – draped over the face of the closed party office of the Lamu Governor, Issa Timany. It screamed: “Mambo ni timam na Timany.” The looming portrait of Timany grinned shrewdly at everyone passing the seafront below. I won’t tell you what our coxswain thought of him, which is probably close to what we all think of our governors anyway.
Other than that, the locals kept calling us “watalii.” I didn’t know whether they were being ironic or sarcastic.
Lamu has fought many fights and lost. It fought all the kidnappings and somehow managed to stay on its wobbly feet. Then came the travel advisories, which although weren’t directed at Lamu, still reached its shores, because really who wants to take the risk? The advisories staggered it, made it stumble. Then came the Mpeketoni attacks, and with it, the hammering of the last nails into Lamu’s coffin. Before it could wipe its brow, it was slapped with this curfew. This curfew has brought Lamu to its knees. You can sense it. It’s not the same. I have seen Lamu in low season, but this is not just the low season, this is how Lamu looks at rock bottom. This is what it looks like at the brink of collapse as a tourism destination. Because the next blow to Lamu might just finish it.
[Photo credit: Kevin Ouma]