Pure Swahili culture, World Heritage and a Chinese port

January 14, 2010

An 11 January article by Jeffrey Gettleman in The New York Times (“Future Kenya Port Could Mar Pristine Land”) is such a textbook case of China-in-Africa discourse that it merits its own entry. All the ingredients are there: heritage, nature and (minority) culture versus the greedy Chinese, with the usual vagueness.

The article states that Lamu, an island on the Kenyan coast and “one the last outposts of pure Swahili culture” whose old town centre has been registered as World Heritage. According to a local politician,

Lamu has been marginalized for decades (…) because
the people here are Muslim and coastal, while Kenya, since its
independence in 1963, has been ruled by Christian politicians from the
highlands. (… T)ourists started flocking here in substantial numbers in the 1990s, precisely
because the area was so underdeveloped and environmentally and culturally
pristine. The villages around the island are studies in poverty. There is
no electricity and no running water. The houses are built from mud, sticks
and string. Malaria is rampant. Many of the children sitting idle in their
homes or clutching saggy soccer balls on the beach have their feet chewed
up by chigoes, the tiny fleas that lay eggs under people’s toenails.

On the positive side,

the omnipresent smells of donkey dung and sweetly rotting fruit and the
crescent-sailed dhows plying the sea make the island feel like a glass
museum case — one with a living culture inside.

But all that may be about to change

because “the Chinese government, one of the most aggressive investors in Africa, is
backing the” Kenyan government’s project to build “the biggest port in East Africa here.”

The biggest worry is the environment. (…) Lamu fishermen fear that the planned dredging of the port will ruin fish breeding grounds.

“They will break the rocks where the fish hide,” said one angler, Mohamed
Shabwana. “They will destroy everything.”

As it turns out at the very end of the article, the proposed site for the port is a actually

a few miles away from Lamu island on a desolate stretch of the mainland. But residents of Lamu town fear that the blast radius of the port — the crime, the pollution and the overall
seediness — will reach them. Kenyan government officials admit, when
pressed, that Lamu and its traditional Muslim culture will be affected.

Well, maybe. But the conclusion seems cavalier. And nothing is said about the Chinese plans apart from the fact that Chinese companies are “studying” the site. Still, the Chinese element gives the article a sinister touch.