I first saw Marie a couple of years ago during a morning walk down Shela beach. Maybe twenty yards (I’m terrible at assessing distances) from the shore is a sandbar; the channel between the beach and the sand bar is farther than you think and a powerful tidal current surges below.
At the northern tip of the sand bar at the water’s edge a woman sat in a wheel chair. She was far away enough so that I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman who stood behind her, holding her chair. She was still there an hour later the wind in her face, clearly absorbing every second. I thought, wow, that’s the way to live.
Like small towns anywhere residents are on a first name basis. I didn’t know Marie Dedieu surname until last week after being abudcted. Last winter I rented a house on Manda island not far from Marie’s hut . On mornings when I decided to walk in direction of Ras Kitau beach, I’d pass her cottage, a more organized version of fisherman’s lean to with a makuti (grass) roof and grass matts for walls.
If it was early morning, she’d be there on the veranda chatting with her house-girls or with friends. Often she’d ask me up on the small bluff for a coffee. Marie is an accessible, feisty and bright woman and easy to gossip with for hours. Invariably, conversation turned to Lamu’s real estate whose stratospheric prices at the time were on a par with South California. (Huh? TIA.) Someone from Mombasa had recently bought the one acre plot next to Marie at an obscenely high price. A centuries-old boabab was unlucky to have grown
front and center of the beach front plot — the exact spot where someone would want to build a house. If I bought that plot, I thought, I’d build a baobab tree house.
Marie complained of having to watch and listen to the chopping and sawing sounds of jua kalis (laborers) slowly massacre the stately Medusa limbed tree. I remember Marie saying it was like watching an elephant slowly being hacked to death.
With hotels closed, travel bans in effect, Lamu is deserted. Military planes and choppers fly low over Shela beach and Lamu town. As someone on my Facebook page noted after I posted photos of Police Commissioner visiting Kiwayu Safari Village three weeks after the murder and kidnappings — “talk about closing the barn door after the horse has escaped”.
Even with “security” installed as of last Wednesday, most everyone I talk to says they still feel exposed. How can the Kenyan government, which has never even been engaged in a war, mobilize themselves to secure a border and an entire district in a single week?
Hoteliers have fired most their staff. Other hotels are armed to the teeth. Police imposed a ban on fishing after dark undermining locals already tenuous incomes. The rationale is that authorities will be certain that if there’s a boat out there in the dark, it’s likely a pirate vessel. Talk about confusing; each time I see one of the few remaining boat taxis with their 15 horse power outboard engines I look twice to makes sure it’s a police boat and not a pirate-packed skiff.
The few remaining semi-permanent residents have only one thing on our minds — who’s got Marie? Pirates or Al Shebab? Is she okay? Are we okay? How dare those cheeky bastards invade Lamu and grab a disabled woman, one who’s been a part of this community for years. She wasn’t wealthy like her neighbors, but, as a wheel-chair bound woman living on the beachfront with no doors or locks, she was the softest target imaginable.
All this talk is like spending the night in a haunted house telling ghost stories. We’re spooked as all Hell.
Why didn’t the navy with big fiber-glass boats catch up with the pirates before Marie dissolved into Somalia? What are we still doing here, even if some of us have homes and jobs?
Some residents who’ve lived here since 80′ say Lamu is now like it was before it was “discovered” and the waterfront was a little more than a series of derelict-looking fishing makuti lean-tos.
The bandits have silenced the boats packed with laughing tourists zinging back and forth between Lamu and Shela, Beach boys and their Bob Marley rasta dhows. No more throbbing disco music from the floating bar. Only Shela’s flagship bar/hotel remains open holding the fort and keeping the home fires burning, as it were, certain that better times will return. The verandah is empty of the usual kaftanista crowd. A few marine and UN types plus a smattering residents cling to their Old Pals and stare dimly toward
darkening skies waiting for the typhoon coming in from the Seychelles.
Northern Kenyans have tolerated Somalis for decades — whether in the form of shiftas or pirates. Somalis are canny survivors.
Marie’s abduction was the result of a mishmash of opportunism on the part of Shebab, pirates, gangsters, local Kenyans — thugs, generally, who want money any which way they can get it and fast.
Kenya’s government, residents, hoteliers and adventure travelers who enjoy the frisson of danger, are now the ones who need to adapt to a new less innocent paradise.
I’d rather die here in Africa than, say, getting hit by a bus in Detroit.
Categories: Conflict In Context - Field Notes