For centuries, the call of the muezzin, inviting the faithful to prayer in Lamu, the oldest Swahili settlement on the East African shores, has been the first sound at dawn. However, today another sound can be heard. That of motorbikes, popularly called boda bodas and used as taxis.
The introduction of motorbikes in the historical sultanate threatens the very fabric of its being — it even risks losing its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The listing of the 16-hectare Lamu Stone Town as a World Heritage Site was celebrated with the inaugural Lamu Cultural Festival, which brought all the islanders to Lamu Stone Town to showcase the rich heritage of the Swahili.
One of the things that saw Stone Town listed as a World Heritage Site was that it was uniquely a pedestrians’ town. Today there are more than 300 boda bodas on the island with no roads. I find myself being squeezed in the alleys as boda bodas pass.
“The former regime was passionate about maintaining the status of Lamu Stone Town as a World Heritage Site,” said Walid Mohammed of Lamu Youth Alliance, a branch of Save Lamu. “But the current governance has no passion for that.”
The boda boda menace began during the 2017 election year when they were used for political rallies and were deemed job creators for the youth.
“However, when we sought the opinion of the Lamu people between 2012 and 2016 about their preferred livelihoods to transform the town into a modern state, no one mentioned motor bikes,” said Ish’aq Abubaker, the vice-chair of Save Lamu.
At that time, there was only one motorbike on the island that belonged to the Kenya Power and Lighting Company and an administrator’s Land Rover. Now there are a handful of tuktuks and at least three vehicles.
I wander to the seafront by the Masjid Rawdha (the mosque was built in 1877) neighbouring Lamu Museum. It’s the boda-boda stage. There are boda boda riders waiting for passengers.
“Most of these boys dropped out of school especially after Covid-19 struck. They are underage and riding without any insurance or licences,” said Raya Famau, a resident.
Two young men proudly wearing their new Lamu Municipality Enforcement T-shirts have recently been employed by the local county to check on the boda boda riders.
“We are here to provide the best service,” said Abdul Noor, the young law enforcer. “The seafront is a no-go zone for boda bodas, except in an emergency like transporting a sick person to hospital.”
The two young law enforcers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of boda bodas.
“We stop them here, but they just find other routes through the Stone Town, which is also illegal. And when we arrest them and they are taken to court, we soon see them back on their bikes again.”
Noor and his colleagues are also concerned about the threats they receive from the boda boda riders. “They can do anything.”
“We have to eat. We can't fish anymore because there is not much in the ocean since the building of the Lamu Port. There is no money for us to go to school,” said Harun Bwana, a young boda boda rider.
The Lamu Port is part of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) a mega infrastructure project under the government’s Vision 2030 to open a transport link with Ethiopia and South Sudan. It has brought in an influx of people from outside Lamu and the islanders feel marginalised over the whole issue.
Asked about how much he earns, Harun said: “The owner of the boda boda pays Ksh500 ($5) per day but some split the day’s earning 50-50.”
“There’s not much money in the business any more,” said Raya, a Lamu resident. “It’s only the rich people who own many boda bodas who profit.”
“The boda boda is a direct result of Lamu not generating enough local industries to employ the youth,” said Umra Omar, founder of Safari Doctors, which use dhows to sail to far flung isles to treat the needy, especially women. He believes that Lamu can be great again with the right policies.
“We need an inclusive government that negotiates for citizens’ rights instead of exploiting them. We need to create industries like fish processing factories and use the revenue from Lapsset wisely," he added.
Mzee Mahmoud Ahmed Kadir steps out of the 700-year-old Pwani mosque where he has been the Imam. He finds little peace in the once quiet town.
“I hate the boda bodas. If l had another place, l would leave today,” he said bitterly. “People are afraid of them because they are powerful like the matatu operators on the mainland. They even have the police in their pockets.
“To stop the menace, there has to be political will like when the government was serious about the plastic ban.”
Three kilometres from Lamu Stone Town is Shela town, which was until two decades ago the poor cousin. Then came the European investors, who bought the derelict Swahili houses and turned them into designer homes in keeping with Swahili architecture.
It’s busy with tourists walking along the alleys and beach unlike Lamu town, which has almost none. And it’s free of boda bodas.
“It’s a community stand in Shela not to have boda bodas,” said Omar Mohamed Maulana, a Shela resident. “The boda bodas can pick and drop passengers at the stage but can't enter. If they do, we chain the bikes and call the police.”
“There is no new money circulating in Lamu Stone Town because we have no tourists,” said Paul Aarts, adding, “The tourists don’t come because they don’t want to be stressed by the boda bodas."
Paul and his wife, Christina met in Lamu in the 1970s. They restored a derelict 200-year-old Swahili house that belonged to the liwali (governor) of Lamu. It is now listed as a heritage house and open to tourists.
“But it’s becoming stressful,” said Christina. “Every time we have guests, we have to warn them about the boda bodas because they are riding everywhere and are aggressive.”
“The situation is really bad,” said Zainab Abdul Ridhaa, the environmental legal officer of Save Lamu, adding, “We have people, donkeys, handcarts and now motorbikes in the same space. Can you imagine the traffic? It’s awful. Lamu does not have the infrastructure like roads for motorbikes."
“Lamu has grown and people use boda bodas because of easy access,” said Hindu Hussein, a young law intern, adding, “There are shambas and neighbourhoods like Bombay, India, Pakistan and Kandahar that are a bit far from Stone Town, so people find it easy to use the boda bodas.
“Lamu can't lose its World Heritage Site listing to boda bodas,” said Ali Shee of Muslims for Human Rights. “Hence we are taking legal action against the boda bodas. It’s going to be a tough case because most belong to the politicians and influential people.”
It may not go this far if the law is enforced.
“According to the Unesco by-laws, the World Heritage Site must keep its integrity,” said Evans Chea, a senior officer at the Kenya Police. “We are therefore establishing the boundaries with the Lamu County assembly that exclude the Lamu World Heritage Site area. The boda bodas will be excluded from here.”
But that’s a contentious issue with many wanting the island to be rid of them.
Due to the public outcry against boda bodas, Save Lamu has started an ambitious project called the Lamu Beautification Programme.
“It will involve all stakeholders on the seafront, the hotel owners, residents, magistrates, National Museums of Kenya, local authorities, the donkey and handcraft owners including the boda bodas,” states Mohamed Athman, Save Lamu’s chairman. “The plan is to come up with a policy proposal to restore Lamu’s beauty.”