An ancient island at the centre of the world

Frozen in time, this Kenyan island was once the most important trade centre in East Africa. Now its eclectic culture faces a new threat: a massive development project.

With its crumbling ancient forts, narrow cobblestone streets and buildings made of coral rock and mangrove timber, Lamu Old Town in Kenya feels almost frozen in time. As the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, the Unesco-designated town (located on an island of the same name) was one of the most important trading centres in Africa during the 14th Century.

Lamu lies in the Indian Ocean about 240km north-east of the port city of Mombasa, which it rivalled as an entrepôt for gold, spices and slaves until most trade partners abolished slavery in the late 19th Century. As trade activity declined, Lamu Old Town held fast to its multicultural identity. Drawing influences from the Chinese, Portuguese, German, Indian and Arabian visitors who landed on its shores, Lamu created a unique amalgamation of food, language, art and architecture all its own over the centuries. 

Now, though, Lamu island faces a wave of change that threatens to alter the isle and its unique culture forever. A massive seven-part, £20bn development infrastructure project called Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport Corridor looms on the horizon. When completed, this ambitious undertaking in Lamu county will link Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan through railways, highways, pipelines and a 32-berth deep-sea port in Lamu. In addition, the transport corridor will be built alongside a Chinese-funded coal plant that could increase greenhouse gases in the area by up to 700%.

Only time will tell if Lamu’s historic, multicultural charm survive this new outside influence.

(Video by Thomas Lewton and Alice McCool, text by Emily Cavanagh)

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