Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lamu. Kenya

To finish up my time in Kenya, I decided to hit the coast. Lamu is old Swahili town in eastern Kenya, and with the exception of Zanzibar, is the most well preserved Swahili culture on the eastern coast of Africa. In fact, in 2001, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The place is amazing. The people are so friendly. Everyone on the street says “jambo” (hello) or “karibu” (welcome). The crazy thing is that I felt like I have been here. The similarities in the built space to Koliwada in Dharavi (Mumbai) is extraordinary. The narrow alley ways. The open doors. The public walkways that go under people homes, the cool breeze and constant shade. It may not be much of a coincidence, as both of these very old communities originally very much depended on fishing, and there has been quite an influence from India all over East Africa.

And the architecture is rich. The old houses have extraordinary friezes and carved decorations in many of the rooms, and the exterior doors are often handsomely carved. But, changes are happening, and it, of course, reveals a lot of layers and complexities.

In one of my earlier posts, I was criticizing a preservation project in Shanghai, which basically renovated old Shikumen housing and turned into to upscale shops and eateries, while displacing everyone that lived there. Here, there is a similar challenge, although it is more a natural process of urban renewal. It can be very expensive to renovate a house here, sometimes as much as three times the cost of building a new one on the periphery. Additionally, because some of the houses are so old, they may have 10-15 owners, usually in the same family. Consequently, many Swahilis have sold their homes to wealthy Europeans who will then renovate them beautifully. Unfortunately, many of these will not live here, and only visit for a couple of weeks a year. I met one shop owner who was lamenting some of the displacement and shifts taking place, as there were fewer and fewer kids in the alleys playing and filling voids between buildings with shouts of joy. While there are often funds to help renovate public buildings, it is rare to find funding to help in assist renovating private homes. In some ways, people are a victim to the historic significance and success of the place, which is certainly happening in almost every city.

So, while many houses are actually getting into better shape, some of the original inhabitants aren’t around. Another thing I noticed is that the new and renovated houses are getting to be quite large. Most of the houses used to be one story with maybe a kitchen on top (to prevent fires from spreading on the floor below). People used to be able to move from roof to roof. However, these new homes are rising up to four and five stories, dominating the houses below. They actually reminded me of our McMansion problem in the US, especially in Atlanta, where people were tearing down small homes, and building massive new ones, dwarfing the older ones in the vicinity.

Part of the challenge within all of this is the need to have order and control. And this is much more critical in historically significant areas where preservation is of a main concern. I was speaking with an inspector in the conservation department here, and he was saying that Kenyans don’t really have much interest in preservation. To them, this is an old way of life and does not necessarily represent the advancement and aspirations of the people themselves. They want to be building with what is new and modern, not that which is old and original. Yet, on the flip side, those who do come from the developed world, and have tired from all things modern, seem to fall in love with this place, its buildings, and its throwback to the past.

For preservation reasons, one of the things that has to be controlled is the use of materials. Amazingly, corrugated iron is not permitted to be used here, even though there is still plenty of it. Most of the buildings are made from coral. Locals cut the blocks by hand (as it is much softer than most rock). The wood for supporting the floors and such in mahogany and mangrove. The structure is very similar to that used in Tibet. But, at what expense does keeping the town visually and historically significant, if it creates a hardship on the people living in the structures? Building a corrugated iron roof may actually be cheaper than the thatched coconut leaf roofs that are now so much in vogue and are more historically accurate. At the very least, people would rather have a newer, functional and more technically advanced material over their heads. On the flip side, the increased tourism certainly brings in lots of money and income to people living here, so they may actually be better off. But, I would that is small minority of the population. To change and then not to change..

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