Island left without a prayer by Kenyans' port plan

THE evening call to prayer seems to summon everyone on the island. As the sun dives towards the ocean, they stream into the mosques, boys in white skullcaps, mothers in black gowns. The last bikini-clad tourists pick themselves from the beach, dust off the sand and head to the hotel for a drink.

Lamu has been like this for decades, a historic seafaring place where modernity has been folded into traditional culture without completely spoiling it. The alleys of the old town (which the UN recognises as a World Heritage site), the smells of donkey and sweetly rotting fruit and the crescent-sailed dhows plying the sea make the island feel like a glass museum case with a living culture inside.

But all that may be about to change. To the dismay of many residents and tourists, the Kenyan government is planning to build the biggest port in East Africa here. Theirs is an ambitious, multibillion-dollar project that could transform trade and knit together Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, eastern Congo and southern Sudan.

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Pipelines, rail lines, highways, airports, an oil refinery and extra-deep berths for 21st-century supertankers are all in the blueprints, though it is hard to imagine such infrastructure rising up along this long-neglected stretch of the Kenyan coast, dotted by crumbling ruins and mangrove swamps.

The Chinese government, one of the most aggressive investors in Africa, is backing the project and has already begun feasibility studies.

"This is real," said Chirau Ali Mwakwere, Kenya's transport minister. "We've made tremendous strides toward the realisation of what you might call a dream."

Not a historian's dream, however. Lamu is one the last outposts of Swahili culture, a throwback to the days of cannons, slaves, spices and sultans who were a mix of Arab and African blood and who ruled the East African coast for hundreds of years. Because it is a small island, reachable only by a short airstrip or very bumpy road and ferry, it has been spared the big hotels and development that have swept Mombasa, Zanzibar and other tourist hotspots in the region.

People here say they are not especially well suited for the mechanised world. There was only one car on the island until recently (the district commissioner's); now there are just ten. Most things are carried by donkeys. Many of Lamu's elders say they think the port plan will bring more trouble than good.

"People in the street think they will get jobs," said Mohamed Athman, who leads a marine conservation group. "What jobs? We don't have drivers or crane operators."

The biggest worry is the environment. Fishing is a lifeline for many of Lamu district's 85,000 people, and the Kenyan government does not have the greatest record in preserving its natural resources, with raw sewage dumped into Lake Victoria and trees chopped down in the Rift Valley. Lamu fishermen fear the planned dredging of the port will ruin fish breeding grounds.

"They will break the rocks where the fish hide," said angler Mohamed Shabwana. "They will destroy everything."

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Omar Mzee, a former member of parliament from Lamu, worries about pollution from the port and possible oil spills.

"This is going to be a mess," Mzee said. "The government is thinking of national GDP. This will not benefit Lamu."

Lamu has been marginalised for decades, Mzee said, because the people here are Muslim and coastal, while Kenya, since independence in 1963, has been ruled by Christians from the highlands. There are few roads out here and few schools. The way residents describe it, Lamu was left to bake in tropical obscurity until tourists started flocking here in the 1990s, because the area was so underdeveloped and environmentally and culturally pristine. The villages around the island are studies in poverty. There is no electricity or running water. The houses are built from mud, sticks and string. Malaria is rampant. Many children sitting idle in their homes or clutching punctured footballs on the beach have their feet chewed up by chigoes, tiny fleas that lay eggs under toenails.

"The government doesn't take us seriously," Mzee said.

The government says it does not have much of a choice. Kenya's growing economy needs a bigger port, and Mombasa cannot be expanded because of natural limitations.

Ever since a Swiss firm in the 1970s identified the Lamu area as the best spot in Kenya for a new port, because it is deep and sheltered by a string of islands, the government has been trying to raise the money. Now the geopolitics of the region seem to be working in its favour.

Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are all landlocked, with growing economies, and interested in reinvigorating the East African community. At the same time, southern Sudan is gearing up for independence from northern Sudan in 2011, and southern Sudan's capital, Juba, is far closer to the Kenyan coast than it is to Sudan's main port on the Red Sea.

"The Kenya side has a lot of reasons," said a Chinese diplomat. "Chinese companies are looking into this."

The proposed site for the port is a few miles away from Lamu island on a desolate stretch of the mainland. But residents of Lamu town fear the blast radius of the port – the crime, pollution and overall seediness – will reach them. Government officials admit that Lamu and its traditional Muslim culture will be affected. "Of course it will change," said Mahmoud Hassan Ali, a port official. "Lifestyle will change and whatever. But if you have faith, you have faith, my friend."