LAMU, KENYA (AFP) – In Lamu Old Town, a historic Swahili trading outpost, a motorcycle taxi weaves its way between donkeys, street vendors and wooden handcarts.
Ten years ago there were only two vehicles on the sleeping island: a motorbike for the power company and the district commissioner’s 4 Ã 4.
However, over the past two years there has been an explosion in the number of loud motorcycle taxis known as the boda bodas, with two-wheelers obstructing the ancient narrow lanes and threatening Lamu’s coveted World Heritage status.
â(Their) number is increasing. Now we have almost 400 boda bodasLamu County Deputy Governor Abdulhakim Aboud said.
In February, bicycles were banned from the waterfront and 16 hectares surround the old town listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Anyone who tries their luck is quickly flagged down by a government official and forced to continue on foot to the bustling heart of this ancient settlement on the Kenyan coast.
Traditionally, goods and people in Lamu were transported in wood dhows, or donkeys used to ply the cobbled paths carrying pieces of washed coral and mangrove wood to build Lamu’s iconic houses in Swahili.
âThis whole city was built by donkeys,â said Walid Ahmed, of the âSave Lamuâ community association which strives to preserve the cultural heritage of the idyllic island.
The clamor of motorcycle engines has angered some islanders who believe it is synonymous with tradition, but has also stoked fears that Lamu will lose the uniqueness that attracts tourists and global recognition to this remote corner of Kenya.
“That’s a very bad idea. We don’t have the ways. Boda bodas are a modern problem that has come to distract from the value of Lamu’s heritage, âAhmed said.
The town, with its stone houses and curved wooden doors, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 in recognition of its status as “Africa’s oldest and best-preserved Swahili colony in Africa. ‘Is”.
An important center of Islamic culture, where Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians and Europeans overlapped for centuries, Lamu has been inhabited continuously for over 700 years.
However, those who are trying to make a living with motorcycles are not happy to be seen as a threat.
“They all complain about UNESCO and the heritage site, but we young people don’t see the benefits,” said Arafat Feiswal, secretary of Lamu boda boda cooperative.
âAs for me, by the time I leave my house my goal is to make money so I’m not sure there is a heritage site that will help put a meal on the table.
Tourism is an important source of income for Lamu, but fragile. Terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab militants, while rare, for a time marred Lamu’s reputation as a peaceful island getaway.
Fishing, which has supported the archipelago for generations, has also suffered since the construction of a massive port north of Lamu began, which will serve as a major trade gateway to East Africa.
The impact of dredging on the industry has compounded the effects of overfishing in the idyllic waters of Lamu, leaving fewer options for the island’s youth.
More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has put these difficulties into a real relief.
Kenya has imposed strict measures to contain the spread of the virus, including briefly closing its border to international travel, affecting results in Lamu where reliable jobs are scarce.
A boda boda the driver could earn 1,200 KES (11 USD) on a good day, Feiswal estimated.
“If the county is able to create permanent jobs for young people, they should do it, then we will stop the boda boda business. If they can’t, then they should let us find our own means to survive, âsaid Abdallah Mohamed, secretary of the boda boda cooperative.
Authorities are aware of the problem and are trying to work with young people to find alternative livelihoods, the deputy governor said.
âSomeone who is hungry, looking for something to eat, won’t buy your idea of ââsaying ‘let’s keep this for a tourist’,â he said.
But for UNESCO, the threat to Lamu goes beyond the boda boda problem.
âThe dangers are many,â said Karalyn Monteil, program specialist for culture at UNESCO headquarters in Nairobi.
She said boda bodas pose a visible challenge, but Lamu’s cultural heritage was besieged by multiple threats, including urban encroachment, development pressure such as the new port, and waste management.
âThese are all ongoing challenges that UNESCO has been exploring with the site for some timeâ¦ There is an urgent need for Kenya to act,â said Monteil.
If nothing is done, the World Heritage Committee could add Lamu to its list of heritage sites in danger at its next meeting in July.