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But historic Swahili architecture is being bought up by foreigners.
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.