Kenya's Lamu Island enchants tourists

The waterfront in historic Lamu Town, off the coast of Kenya.</p>

The waterfront in historic Lamu Town, off the coast of Kenya.

LAMU, Kenya — Shela village on Lamu Island looks the part of a Swahili town: narrow alleys wind past coral stone houses down to the beach and azure sea beyond, where traditional Arab sailing ships bob in the gentle breeze.

But Shela’s alleys seem oddly empty and quiet — and almost totally devoid of villagers.

That's because wealthy foreigners, among them Princess Caroline of Monaco and her husband Prince Ernst of Hanover, now own about half of the properties in Shela. What was once a poor village has been transformed into an exotic destination for the rich and famous, who come for the beach, stunning architecture and fresh seafood cooked in Swahili spices.

Villagers who sell their properties earn enough to buy a big house or two in the cities of Mombasa or Malindi, down the Kenyan coast. Locals say that within five years, every house in Shela will be foreign owned.

The deserted feeling is in sharp contrast with that of historic Lamu Town, just a 40-minute walk down the island, which is jammed with locals and donkeys (and trails of donkey dung, as well as a fair amount of garbage). The donkeys are used as transport because there is no room for cars on the island. Lamu’s population is mainly Muslim and many women walk shrouded in the black buibui, while men still wear khanzu robes. The bustling atmosphere is much as it would have been a century ago.

Western tourists have been visiting Lamu Island since the 1970s, when it was on the hippie trail. Today the island attracts a much more upscale crowd — Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, English musician Sting, model Naomi Campbell and U.S. President Barack Obama have all visited — who tend to fall in love with the airy houses and laid-back culture. Many decide to buy property.

But there are concerns that gentrification and the influence of extreme wealth could change the “unique social-cultural life” of Lamu Town which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. There are also fears that the property boom in Shela, which has spurred construction in the sand dunes behind the village, could threaten the entire island’s fresh water supply.

In Lamu Town, imams are cautious about the effect of outside influences on local culture but praise foreign property owners for helping to preserve the charming, historic Swahili architecture. Lamu is renowned for its distinctive carved wooden doors, and tall townhouses built of coral stone and mangrove poles with rooms facing inward onto private courtyards. The island is a mishmash of hundreds of years of invaders and influences, including Omani Arab, Portuguese, British, Indian, Persian and African.

“If not for the foreigners, the buildings will be in ruins,” said Mahmoud Abdulkadir, an imam in Lamu who is also a poet.

Andrew McGhie, a Briton who runs Lamu Island Property, which renovates properties for foreign clients, points to the positive effect that foreign home owners have had on the local economy, in particular by encouraging the preservation of traditional artisan skills through the restoration of buildings.

“Most people are here because they love the architecture, love the Swahili culture, and they want it to stay that way,” he said.

His projects sometimes have upwards of 60 traditional craftsmen known as “fundis” working on a building site, an important source of employment. Young people are carrying on ancient traditions such as wood carving, furniture making and plasterwork because there is a new demand for these skills, he said.

McGhie, who used to work in publishing in London and has lived in Lamu since 2002, describes it as “simply one of the most interesting places that I can imagine being on Earth.”

He said that Lamu went into “huge decline” at beginning of the 20th century.

“Houses were falling down, there was very little commerce, people were leaving in droves,” McGhie said. “Yes, a lot of foreign people have bought houses here, but otherwise they would have fallen down.”

But Hussein Soud El-Maawy, chairman of Lamu’s council of elders, feels that too much of the property in Shela is in foreign hands. High property prices on the island hurt locals who want to buy in their own communities, he said.

“We are grateful that they are helping the land from falling into ruins,” said El-Maawy, an imam in a long white robe who closes his eyes when he speaks. “But the houses are no longer the people’s houses.”

Salim Bunu, senior curator for Lamu Museums and World Heritage Site, said that in the most historic parts of Lamu town, his staff is trying to convince locals not to sell their properties, just to lease them for long terms such as 50 years.

“Now we do awareness about not selling,” Bunu said. “Because if they all sell their houses, it won’t be Lamu culture anymore.”

Shela village, which is fashionable and close to the beach, tends to attract a different crowd of foreigners than the ones in Lamu town. They generally have more money — property is far pricier there — and prefer the village’s resort-like atmosphere to the grittiness of a working town.

Bunu and the museum staff are also fighting plans to build houses in the sand dunes behind Shela, which is the island’s water catchment area and considered a delicate ecosystem in a place with precious little fresh water.

With a shortage of available land in Shela, the temptation is to build into dunes — something that a local politician was caught out on. Some title deeds on the dunes and Shela beach have been cancelled because they infringed on the water catchment area, said Bunu, however others remain in place.

A cautionary tale comes from the village of Takwa on a nearby island. In the mid-1700s, the entire population of Takwa abandoned their homes after the village’s fresh water supply became too salinated to drink. They moved to Shela on nearby Lamu Island, but twice a year would return to Takwa to visit the tomb of their former imam and spend the day praying and celebrating.

But for the last two years, no one has come from Shela to remember the imam, according to Abdi Shukri, a guide at the ruins of Takwa.

“Shela is mostly white nowadays,” Shukri explained.

One letter writer to a local magazine, a foreign resident, expressed concern about other foreigners in Shela wasting water by building swimming pools at their homes when fresh water is in short supply on the island. She points to the history of Takwa village, whose residents were forced to leave their homes because of a lack of drinking water.

“Soon Lamu will become just another Heritage Site without people,” the letter warns.