Built to cool, not to protect, the sisal thatched roofs that dot the Lamu archipelago give a good indication of where priorities lie on the north Kenyan coast.
Whereas Nairobi residents surround themselves with three-metre walls and electric fences, doors made of palm tree fibres are all that stand at the entrance of many homes along the empty sands of islands stretching far into the distance. That may be about to change.
At 3am on October 1 at least 10 gunmen landed on Manda Island and burst into the home of Marie Dedieu. A retired French journalist, the 66-year-old woman had made her home for the past 15 years on Manda, which lies across a narrow lagoon from the village of Shela on Lamu Island, a popular hangout with the rich and famous. The Kenyan navy attempted to stop the boat in which the kidnappers escaped, but despite firing warning shots over it they slipped back to Somalia.
The kidnapping took place just three weeks after a British tourist, 56-year-old Judith Tebbutt, was kidnapped north of Lamu and taken to Somalia, raising fears that Somali pirates are searching for easier pickings along the Kenyan coast as it becomes more difficult to hijack ships, their traditional target. Tebbutt, whose husband was killed in the raid on the camp where she was staying, is believed to have been sold to Somali pirates.
However, the latest incident should not be regarded as the beginning of a trend just yet, said Roger Middleton, a researcher in the Africa programme at Chatham House in London.
Even though there had been concerns for some time that pirates might begin to attack tourists, given how relatively unprotected they were, it was not as easy to make money out of them, he said.
“Although ships have become harder to capture and better protected recently, it remains the case that they are much more profitable targets than private individuals. The times when pirates have captured yachts have generally led to long periods of waiting for ransoms to be paid and the amount paid has generally been significantly less than they would have got for a commercial ship.”
Still, the kidnappings are highly damaging to the Kenyan tourism industry, which is still recovering from the negative impact that the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008 had on its image abroad.
Lamu is one of the main destinations for tourists, who generated $731-million for the country last year, making the industry the second largest foreign exchange earner after tea. The British and French governments have now changed their travel advice for Kenya, recommending that their citizens stay away from Lamu.
On the day of the attack on Dedieu the British government advised against all non-essential travel to within 150 kilometres of the border with Somalia. That still means that most of the Kenyan coast is not off limits to visitors, which might serve as a boon to other popular tourist havens such as Malindi and Diani near Mombasa.
But it could devastate Lamu. “We’re more secure than ever,” said the manager of the Majlis Hotel. “The police have just erected a post here, but we’ve already had three cancellations since the kidnapping.”
The Kenyan government has vowed to deal firmly with the problem and Internal Security Minister George Saitoti warned the kidnappers “and all others who are trying to provoke Kenya” that they had “made a big mistake and will live to regret it”.
He announced increased security measures near Lamu, including 24-hour aerial surveillance and the deployment of more navy vessels. “All entry and departures by boats will be regulated through a common security point,” he said, adding that any speedboats that defied orders to stop would be “disabled”.
But for many hotels the decision is too little, too late. The two hotels on Manda Island, Diamond Beach Village and Manda Bay Resort, have both decided to close their doors for the moment. The owners declined to comment. Meanwhile, Somalia which has been without a fully functioning government for 20 years now, will continue to serve as a haven for a hodgepodge of criminals looking to make money in any way, knowing full well that they will probably never have to face the justice system of a normally functioning nation.