The dhow’s bow slices through the glassy green surface sending ripples with blue crests into the mangal – mangrove biome – that makes up the evergreen forests that surround us. The mangroves’ complicated root systems break the waves and quiet the water as it laps about them. It is completely still and the our young companion has disappeared with her kayak into a steamy channel.
Mangroves are a highly evolved species, their pneumatophore protrusions rise up from the roots to exchange air – breathing life into the upward spreading foliage on which sit a couple of shore line birds that we set off into the darkening sky. The elders may have prayed too hard, asked for too much, is that unreasonable? The thought evaporates with the heat, as Mungo the Giriama god of rain, roars before letting it pelt. Whilst most of the occupants of the boat attempt to cover up from the breeze that accompanies us as soon as we leave the calm and wind sheltered forest, some lift their faces towards the full sail, like Loki laughing up at Thor, enjoying the tempest.
In the remarkable conditions of these tropical creeks – with low oxygenated, brackish water, and flooded twice a day by tides, mangroves find their roots. They catch sediments from sea water, cleaning the water that flows back into the coral reefs. Fish breed under the mangroves before swimming out to the coral reefs. Their flowers and fruit feed honeybees and monkeys, provide nesting for frogs and roosting for birds and bats. Leaf fall finds its way to the bottom, where crabs wait to feed on it directly. As fungi and bacteria break down the debris, prawns and smaller crustaceans feed on decomposed litter and they in turn, provide food for larger fish, who are eaten by birds and people. The remaining organic matter is taken up by the mangrove root system and thus 80% of mangrove litter is recycled below each tree. Lamu county houses nine species and 70% of the mangrove forests of East Africa.
The boat man who is related to every other boat man on the island, told us that the sea is very rough out there now and the fisherman have to go out further and further to find the fish. Giriama fishermen are very brave, they go out into the storms typical of this season, in small boats to fish where no Swahili will go for the money they are being paid. He adds that the price of fish is low, as there is no proper cold storage available, the markets are far away and the rate of unemployment, high.
Someone involved with an oil exploration project on Pate tells me how the coal plant, to be built some twenty kilometres from Lamu town, will bring desperately needed jobs to the county. It is also supposed to provide a reliable source of energy for the standard gauge railway, part of a system of railroads, highways, pipelines, fibre-optic cables, water infrastructure and international airports in what has become the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia- Transport corridor project. Its aim is the large scale transformation of local fishing folk to unskilled labourers who will power the anticipated industrial revolution.
But, I’ve seen a T shirt that reads “Coal ni Sumu” – Coal is toxic. 75% of the residents do not want the project to go ahead. Not only will it fail to provide long term jobs for locals as it will be run by a Chinese company and their staff, there is no such thing as clean coal. They have been advised by an independent South African company as to its limitations and now four US senators have begun a campaign to stop its funding.
Greenpeace have explained that other countries, including China, are shutting down coal plants in favour of renewable energy sources like solar and wind – a pledge that Kenya made in its constitution – indicating its willingness to help climate change by reducing carbon emissions. Some residents say, they have been kept ill informed about its licensing, the posed health risks and that those who have spoken against the project have lost their jobs.
Development threatens Lamu’s way of life, the thing that got it on the UNESCO list of heritage sites and that has long been the source of inspiration for travellers, writers and artists. There is panic, opinions are divided and there is fear. Having survived the terrorists, pirates, warring factions, droughts, floods and travel bans, this could be the final nail in the coffin for Lamu.
Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute ground water, drinking water, and the air. Poisonous gases, acid rain and chemical ash will find their way into the ocean, cooling the plant will take water from the sea, returning warmer water back. Raising the temperature of the sea will kill off the mangrove forests and everything that relies on it all along the East African coast from Somalia to Madagascar.
The project has been delayed and the capacity cut in half to avoid ending up with excess electricity that would force consumers to pay for idle plants. Further reports indicate that non-fossil fuels like geothermal and wind energy will not only be adequate but even cheaper than the coal, which will initially be imported from South Africa and eventually sourced from Kitale in Kenya. Zealous debates in similar fights are going on around the world, such as for the Sundarbans of Bangladesh and the Save Lamu movement is gaining energy.
The line of wet sailed sunset cruisers is still out when we jump or fall into the shallow waters of the beach. The kayak, abandoned at some safe location. Here people look after each other and their things. On another beach like this, in the archipelago, the turtles have been hatching. They, along with other sea creatures will seek shelter from predators in the root systems of the mangroves. Mangrove wood is also pest free and excellent for building dhows.
We walk soaked and wrapped in clinging kikoys through Shela village, past Peponi’s verandah where the punters refuse to stop enjoying their sundowners and up towards the dune passing a couple of donkeys laden with panniers of aggregate and through an arch against which lean mangrove poles for building.
The rain stops. The stars glitter, house illuminations from Manda are reflected on the waves. Tourism is up again, the coral ragged houses with their Swahili sensibility are full. The women and children stroll by the anchored boats, long robes, flowing in the wind. The vendor on the beach with his basket full of samosas is busy. And a young man saunters by on bare feet, showing off his catch. “Baby Shark” he says happily.
We stayed at 360 Lamu, the house on top of the hill, where the breeze is constant and the views span the dunes, across Manda bay, the length of the creek and over Shela village. The owners are, amongst other things gourmands and art patrons, which is reflected in the service and décor.