Friday, October 14.
The rain this week has been endless. Since the clouds blew in Tuesday afternoon, we haven’t seen a scrap of blue above us. The channel is gray and choppy; the fishing boats toss and lurch and knock hulls, their sides christened with the mixed-up philosophies and word associations of life in modern-day Kenya. Uhuru. Respect. Manna. Beyoncé. The fishermen, wispy wraithlike figures wrapped in kikoys long faded by the sun, gather in the restaurant of the Stopover. They sit there at the empty tables, the day’s takings too meager to justify even a single hot mug of chai. Their talk is as relentless as the rain. Inshallah. Inshallah. There is always room for hope. Donkeys plod the long sand track toward Lamu town, their backs loaded with sacks of cement or blocks of coral stone. Children, bare foot, in djellabahs and bui-buis, their voices carrying like birdsong. From my balcony, I have a sultan’s-eye view of everything. The hotel staff bring me breakfast on the terrace: warm chapati, Spanish omelettes, big steins of coconut milk.
The weather’s cast an inauspicious cloud over the week. I’ve arrived to report on the recent kidnappings of foreigners by suspected Somali pirates for a well-known luxury travel magazine. This is a tremendous deal for me, and one that had already heightened my anxiety before the rains blew in. Tuesday night’s storm knocked out the only transformer in Shella; by 7pm, darkness drops on the village like a stone. While this probably hasn’t posed too many problems at the high-rolling Peponi Hotel, where the constant thrum of gas-powered generators is as steady and reliable as the tide, it’s complicated life at the thrifty Stopover. The cost of fuel on the island is high, and management has decided to fire up the generator for just a couple hours a night. Evenings bring an elaborate choreography of plugging and charging, trying to milk whatever feeble power is being pumped into my room before I’m left with nothing but moon- and candle-light to scribble my thoughts by.
It has lent a certain black comedy to the week. You would picture a luxury-travel writer being fed crab claws and caipirinhas and more or less getting fellated by Thai masseuses while he does his reporting; sadly, readers, this is not the case. I’ve been juggling laptop batteries and stocking up on spare SIMs, since a stray breeze will almost certainly knock out at least one of the major phone networks. (Not without good reason are dual-SIM phones pretty much de rigeur in Kenya.) There is the problem, too, that the kidnapping story – now two weeks old – has already been overreported. Local hotel owners, I quickly learn, have felt unfairly treated by the press. Some say they were blatantly misquoted; others that the general media consensus of a “panicky flight” from Lamu was grossly exaggerated. (Later in the week, I’ll pay a visit to the offices of the three airlines which operate flights to the island. Between the three, they report a grand total of two tourists who had come to them in the days after the kidnappings to take the aforementioned panicky flight.) As the area begins to gear up for the high season, there’s a sense among hoteliers and tour operators that the best press for Lamu right now would be no press at all.
Fortunately, my swank media credentials open up some doors, and many of the hotel owners around Shella are eager to at least set the record straight. Lars Korschen, at the Peponi – a de facto base for me, with its abundant outlets and prime Kenyan AA coffee – gestures to the empty dining room where I’ve come to meet him and says, “We’re down to next to nothing at the moment.” Korschen has a windswept, old-mariner’s air about him; you can almost picture his vocal chords just sitting there on the beach, getting bleached by the sun and mottled with salt and sand. He walks me through some of the beefed-up security around the hotel – extra watchmen, armed police at night, floodlights that can light up the beach like the 4th of July at a moment’s notice – and says he’s hopeful that the American and British governments will soon lift their travel advisories. The Kenyan security forces, he says, “were caught a little bit unaware” by the September kidnapping at KSV, but “the security has stepped up dramatically.” The police have announced increased patrols on land and sea of the border region, as well as round-the-clock aerial surveillance of the area and a greater presence on Lamu, Manda, and all area beaches. Plans are in place to create a regional command and control center, to coordinate the efforts of the different security branches. Still, says Korschen, it’s impossible to deny that the threat exists.
“It’s really hard for us to encourage people to come when that kind of thing’s going on,” he says. “I have to start off with saying, ‘I assume you know about the travel advisories, and that you’ve checked your insurance and that you feel okay about coming.’ And I tell them about the increased security, and it’s still beautiful here, and I’m still here, and they’ll probably enjoy themselves tremendously.” He sighs. His face lights up.
“It might not be as good a season as we expected, but we’re going to pull through,” he says.
The mood in Shella seems to swing between steely resolve and forlornness. At any time of day, gathered around the village’s small jetty, a dozen beach boys are limply plying their trade to the two or three tourists who pass by. No one is taking sunset cruises, no one is booking dhow tours of the mangroves or the old Swahili ruins on Manda island. While the kidnappings have hurt the hotel industry, they’ve been far more damaging to local villagers: according to official estimates, nearly 90 percent of income in Lamu is tourism-related. The fishermen braving the rough sea at night, the women squatting behind piles of fresh vegetables in the markets of Lamu town, rely on the hotels and restaurants for most of their business. Walking through Shella one afternoon, I find a man – Ousmane, or Osmond – shucking oysters on the small stoop outside his home. Beside him is a plastic bag full of mollusks. “I can give you a very good price,” he assures me.
The listlessness around Shella is as dampening as the weather. When I ask a group of fishermen about recent events, and the government’s response to the kidnappings, they grumble and shake their heads. “It is too late,” says one man, Mohamed. “The story has already happened.” Another, Hamdi, says that the problem lies with the country’s lax security forces. “Our people, they are cowards,” he says. There is a widely held view among islanders that the police are too lazy and corrupt to protect them. “They want the nice biscuits, the nice meat, good beer,” says Hamdi. He complains that most of the local police and military come from upcountry towns. Few know their way through the mangroves and channels of the archipelago; many don’t even know how to swim. (One beach boy, a wiry rasta with little coils of copper-colored dreads, suggests that the government give him a boat full of beer and marijuana and let him and his friends track down the pirates themselves.) The police have put on a good show of strength, says Hamdi, but who’s to say if a boat-load of attackers couldn’t slip through again? “It’s like having a guard, but he is asleep at your door,” he says.
The week drags on; the reporting is a slog. Government officials and security experts in Nairobi are impossible to reach by phone; when I finally manage to contact a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy, she offers a limp response to my questions about American support for and involvement in Kenya’s anti-piracy efforts. “The United States condemns this act of violence and offer our condolences to the family of the deceased,” she writes. “We call for immediate release of the kidnapped victim.” (In fairness, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting.) On a rainy afternoon, I take a boat across the channel to Manda’s Ras Kitau beach, where the swank, $1,800-a-night Majlis Hotel sits about 50 meters from the house where the Frenchwoman was kidnapped two weeks ago. The Majlis has a sumptuous, Arabian Nights air about it, with its ornate wall carvings and Oriental rugs. But while the Italian owners have defiantly decided to stay open (and have, in fact, praised the Kenyan police, who built a makeshift sentry box a couple hundred yards down the beach), the hotel is practically deserted. With a bulldozer plowing the sand out front, to help construction of a new seawall, the place feels like an excavation site of some ancient desert kingdom.
The Maasai watchman gestures toward the reception area with his knobkerry; a manager comes out to greet me. We’ve hardly gone through the preliminaries when he asks for my card. I’m slightly taken aback: I haven’t had the foresight to print any cards for my Kenya trip, and haven’t yet had one of the fortuitous encounters which, in Ouagadougou earlier this year, had me forking over ten bucks for a hundred business cards from a guy I met on the side of the road. The manager, whose slick-backed hair is, unlike mine, achieved with some deliberate effort, shakes his head and apologizes. “I’m very sorry,” he says, “but I can’t speak to you unless you have a card.” The Majlis’ owners, it seems, have grown as wary as the rest of the area’s hoteliers toward media requests; without some sort of visual proof of my professional affiliations, management has been told to stay mum.
It’s a dispiriting setback to the day; outside, on the beachfront, another indignity: I’d told my boat captain to come back for me in half an hour, imagining for myself a very busy and journalistic afternoon. Five minutes after he’d dropped me off, he’s nowhere to be seen. The rain has intensified. My shirt is stuck to my chest; my notebook feels like a bunch of wet leaves. A long history of professional disappointments is gathering in my mind like the storm clouds above. Suddenly, a man materializes from behind an acacia tree, like a djinn in some Arabian myth. He stands there beside me and stares wordlessly at the channel. We watch the distant figure of some boat – most probably mine – ferrying some tourists to Lamu town. Pleasantries are exchanged. The man has a dark, pitted face, patches of gray stubble on his chin; his eyes seem to have been dredged up from the murky depths of some untold sorrows. For a second, I wonder if this is the same Osmond, or Ousmane, who I’d met shucking oysters a few days ago. As it turns out, it’s his older brother; he’d come to Manda for the day to do some work. When I ask him what sort of work, he just looks at me. After some minutes we see a white boat puttering across the channel. The captain gives a cheery wave, as if it’s a fine day indeed to be standing on the beach. By the time I get back to the Stopover, I’m soaked through to the bone.
With the week dragging on, it feels like I’ve hardly made any progress on my story. Frustrated, feeling both physically and spiritually sopping wet, I take a boat to Lamu town one morning to get some comments from local officials. The rain is coming down in sheets, wind-blown, practically horizontal; the crude gutters that run through the town are brimming with gray rain water and unspeakable things. I track down the District Commissioner and the area’s tourism chief, filling my notebook with government-cleared assurances and platitudes. Waiting for Chief Jamal Fankupi, the principal chief of the entire coast region, the mud caked to my ankles, my shirt musty and fungal, I begin to wonder whether I should’ve made the trip at all.
It is a long wait. The principal chief is behind a closed door, entertaining the beseechers and supplicants. News clippings taped to the doorway sing his praises. “Kenya’s sole principal chief key in Faza,” reads one headline. A boy with a skull cap fusses with a beaded bracelet, the name “Abdul” worked into the design. Sitting on the bench beside me, a man in a kikoy takes a call; his ring tone chimes “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Sandals scuff the floor, beat-up fishermen’s feet, women in bejeweled slippers with henna tattoos up to their ankles. The roof is a tin awning held up by rough wooden crossbeams; weather stains distress the walls, the thin layers of Crown paint no match for the tropical climate. We sit and wait. Overhead a tangle of wires and cords spills from an electrical box, as if a very large and complicated bird’s nest has been yanked apart by a strong hand. The sound of sandals clopping heavily up the concrete stairs. A boy in bluejeans, an umbrella tucked beneath his arm, carries a bucket of hard-boiled eggs, chopped tomatoes and onions. For ten cents he will crack and peel the shell; you sprinkle the piri-piri yourself.
The door opens, and the askari raises his eyebrows toward me. Chief Jamal is ready to see me. The paramount chief sits behind his desk – a tall tower of a man, seven feet plus – his face handsome, dignified, unabashedly skeptical. He has no idea who I am. I introduce myself and describe my assignment on the island, expressing my gratitude that he’s decided to receive me on such short notice. Chief Jamal Fankupi is perhaps the most powerful man in Lamu – the only paramount chief in Kenya, a man who presides over the full length of the coastal region, from the Somali border to Tanzania. Even before we’ve gotten past the preliminaries a man barges in, bent at the waist, making small supplicatory gestures. He has come a long way, he says, to greet the chief. Chief Jamal receives and dismisses him with a single nod, then inclines his head toward me.
I put a few questions to him about the kidnappings, and the government’s response to them. The voice that comes from his mouth is deep and methodical. He describes the increased security measures that have been put in place in Lamu, the commitment of government officials, the hosannahs of the locals who are, he assures me, completely satisfied with the efforts of their elected leaders. “They have seen it for themselves, what the government is doing,” he says. It is like speaking to a press release. We dance around thusly for a few minutes, me making little inscrutable journalistic scrawls in my notebook, the paramount chief making a tent out of his long, slender fingers, as if imploring me to get to the point. Finally, I ask him whether he’s concerned about reports pointing toward local involvement in the kidnappings. Is anything being done, I ask, to root out local sympathizers of Al Shabaab? The paramount chief gives me a look. “Since the investigation is still being carried on, we cannot tell that without the finish of the investigation,” he tells me. He rests his big hands on the desk: they look like they could crush walnuts, or reporters. Gathering my things, I ask if he thinks the island is safe.
“It cannot happen again,” he says. “It cannot happen again. It cannot happen again. And I repeat that. And it will never happen again.”
I stand and extend my hand across the desk.
“Inshallah,” I say.