Looking to regain a paradise lost in Kenya's Lamu

Tourism has been badly hit in Kenya’s idyllic Lamu archipelago since the October 1 kidnapping of Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu. But now Lamu locals are looking to an upcoming cultural festival to revitalise the area.


Sitting under the thatched roof of his empty waterfront restaurant in Lamu - an idyllic Indian Ocean island off Kenya’s eastern coast - Ghalib Ahmed Alwiy is planning the next big crowd-puller that will bear in a tide of desperately-needed tourists even as he counts his losses.

“Business?” scoffs the portly, loquacious owner of Bush Gardens, a Lamu institution that has been serving tourists for the past 28 years. “It’s dead. It’s a graveyard. In 28 years, it has never been this bad. Look around – there’s no one. I’m losing money every day to keep this place running. But I personally come here, just to sit with my boys,” he says gesturing to his restaurant staff.

But Alwiy is not a man to give up that easily. The owner of Bush Gardens - who’s known across the island as “Bush” – also happens to be the main organiser of the much-acclaimed annual Lamu Cultural Festival.

Despite the bad times, Alwiy maintains that the 2011 festival from November 24 to 27 will go on. “The festival is a tool to attract businesses to Lamu,” he explains. “The show will go on and I’m confident it will be a success.”

Located not far from the Somali border, Kenya’s Lamu archipelago - which includes the main island of Lamu as well as the islands of Manda and Pate – is a tropical tourist paradise with miles of sun-drenched beaches stretching out to bathtub calm jade-blue waters. Lamu Island boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Old Town and is home to a quintessentially coastal Swahili culture that attracts tourists, artists, anthropologists and nirvana-seekers.

When Lamu locals list some of the archipelago’s past visitors, as well as the foreigners who own luxurious beachside properties, it’s a veritable celebrity line-up: the Prince of Monaco, Princes William and Harry, Mick Jagger, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie – along with battalions of bill-paying paparazzi.

But that was before October 1, that fateful night, when Marie Dedieu, an elderly wheelchair-bound Frenchwoman was kidnapped from her beachside banda, or thatched hut, on Manda Island.

Dedieu’s kidnapping came weeks after a British tourist was kidnapped and her husband killed when abductors stormed their high-end tourist banda in Kiwayu, an island further north of Manda, right by the Somali border.

The motivations for the kidnappings are still unclear. But according to Kenyan and Western intelligence officials, the kidnappers took their hostages to areas of Somalia controlled by the Islamic militant group, al Shabaab. 

On October 16, Kenyan troops launched a military operation, called Linda Nchi - or “Protect the Nation” in the native Kiswahili – in a bid to stem the chronic insecurity in Somalia from spilling into Kenya.

Responding to the military operation, al Shabaab promptly vowed retaliatory attacks against civilians in Kenya.

Kenyan police have blamed al Shabaab militants for two grenade attacks last month in the capital of Nairobi as well as for the October 13 kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border.

‘Restricted without prior authorization’ zone

The question of al Shabaab’s ability to conduct devastating terror attacks in Kenya is a subject of intense debate among analysts and security officials in East Africa.

Western governments however are taking no chances and have issued travel advisories highlighting the risks of visiting Kenya.

The advisories for Lamu are particularly tough, with the US State Department including Lamu in a “restricted without prior authorization” zone for US government employees, contractors and grantees.

The French government advisory meanwhile states that “it is strictly advised not to stay in the Lamu archipelago and the surrounding areas.”

Lamu locals decry ‘biased’ advisories

The economic effects of the kidnappings and subsequent advisories have been “drastic,” according to Lamu District Commissioner Steven Ikua. “We don’t have the figures yet, but I can tell you that since the two kidnappings, there have been massive hotel cancellations. There’s been a drastic drop in tourists and it has led to unemployment in the tourism industry, the fishing industry - in virtually all sectors.”

In Lamu social circles, the travel warnings are a source of consternation - and occasional rage.

“The government advisories are making it worse. They stop their nationals from visiting Lamu. So Lamu suffers. I think these advisories are biased. How many English and French people get killed in the US and Europe? They don’t do that when it happens there,” fumes Alwiy as a Lamu elder at his table nods in agreement.

Alwiy’s comments may not be strictly true, but it echoes a widespread perception in this tight-knit island community.

Responding to the charges however, French Ambassador to Kenya Etienne de Poncins was careful to note that, “We’re aware of the consequences for the population and the economy of a friendly country like Kenya. When we decide to change the travel advisory, we do that with a full sense of responsibility. Having said that, it’s our first responsibility to protect our citizens. When the abduction of Mme. Dedieu occurred - in the heart of the tourist zone in the middle of the night - we were obliged to react and respond,” said de Poncins in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 in Nairobi.

An abandoned banda

More than a month after she was kidnapped and subsequently declared dead by French authorities, Dedieu’s banda lies desolate and abandoned under the bleaching equatorial sun.

Inside the thatched hut, stacks of French books belonging to the former women’s rights activist and longtime Lamu resident gather cobwebs in the shade.

Bernard Benedictaponda says his employers have not returned to their Manda house since Marie Dedieu’s kidnapping.
Bernard Benedictaponda says his employers have not returned to their Manda house since Marie Dedieu’s kidnapping.

At the neighbouring property, Bernard Benedictaponda, a houseboy and cook, idly watches the waves lap ashore. His employers were supposed to arrive from the UK the Saturday after Dedieu was kidnapped, he says, “but they cancelled because their government told them not to go”.

Benedictaponda points to the other house flanking Dedieu’s hut. “The owners came from Britain just one night before Marie was kidnapped,” he explains. “The morning after she was kidnapped, they bought tickets to return home and they haven’t come back.”

Tightened security for the festival

Alwiy hopes that tide will turn in a few weeks when the archipelago hosts the Lamu Cultural Festival featuring dhow and donkey races, traditional music and dances as well as a Swahili food bazaar.

Ghalib Ahmed Alwiy sits in his empty waterfront restaurant planning the next big tourist thing.
Ghalib Ahmed Alwiy sits in his empty waterfront restaurant planning the next big tourist thing.

As the longstanding chairman of the Lamu Cultural Festival Promotion Group, Alwiy has been feverishly fundraising over the past few months and he maintains the security situation has not intimidated his regular sponsors, which include the embassies of the US, France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, French Ambassador de Poncins reaffirmed his government’s backing for the festival.

“France has been a supporter of the Lamu Cultural Festival for many years,” said de Poncins. “We’ve taken a political signal to confirm our support for the current year.” But he declined to comment on whether the current travel advisory would be revised, noting that any change would be made “pending the security situation”.

Shortly after Dedieu’s abduction, Kenyan security services were widely criticized for the security failures leading up to the Frenchwoman’s kidnapping and for their dismal performance in trying to nab her abductors, who are still at large.

But Lamu’s district commissioner says security across the archipelago as well as the surrounding region has been tightened with additional police patrol boats and personnel along with naval patrols with access to helicopters.

“Security has been beefed up in the whole area more than ever before,” said Ikua. “We are preparing ourselves for many visitors this year – around 15 to 20,000 I would estimate. We have done the best we can to ensure the safety of everyone who comes for the festival.”

It remains to be seen if potential visitors are reassured by that promise. Alwiy is certainly buying Ikua’s argument. “Al Shabaab realised there was no security (before Dedieu’s kidnapping). But now security has been enhanced,” says the Lamu native. “My message is the world should unite to find a political solution for Somalia and not punish Lamu.”

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