How safe is Kenya’s coast for tourists?

Conflict In Context - Field Notes Passport

Read my award-winning Newsweek story about the tourist kidnappings.

Paradise revised. Difficult to imagine that anything bad can happen in a place this beautiful. Manda island, 2011

Glassy waters on approach to Marie Dedieu’s grass hut. Like fruit on an outdoor stand almost anyone living the Robinson Crusoe dream was ripe for the plucking. (margot kiser, 2011)

Aerial photo of shoreline and acacia trees where pirates stashed Dedieu for the night. Near Ras Kamboni, Somalia.



Near Kiwayu

Feels safe enough to me. The calm and relaxed atmosphere I remember when I first visited Lamu in the early ’90s has replaced the palpable tension – the terror – and eerie quiet that followed the kidnaps. Safe or not – who really knows – Lamu has reverted to that hidden gem that every visitor feels they’re the first to discover. Most importantly, I no longer look at every fishing skiff as if it might be packed with pirates predisposed to snatch the first mzungu (European) they see.

Is this a false sense of security?

Every evening at 6pm administration policemen armed with AKs patrol Shela and Manda beaches. I don’t see the rumored armed patrol boats in the Shela channel where an armed gang plucked Marie Dedieu. BBC recently did a segment “testing” security in Lamu. The presenter hopped on a police boat with heavily armed men and headed toward the Shela channel. But patrol boats and surveillance aircraft seem only materialize when journalists are lurking.

Admin police armed with AKs patrol Shela’s beach — reassuring or daunting sight?

A nearby US military base reportedly sends drones to surveille southern Somalia. In June, the British High Commission donated high-tech, high-speed Zodiac-like boat to local administration police to patrol waters around the Lamu Archipelago.  Nice gesture but whether it’s used to that end or to moonlight as a taxi to ferry ill relatives of police to the mainland is anyone’s guess.

As early as July, 2011, AMISOM had made gains in expelling Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked insurgency group, from Mogadishu. After losing revenue from Mogadishu port, cash-strapped rebels could no longer afford to sniff piously at the avarice of pirates. They began demanding protection money from pirates so they could gas up boats or pass through their clan territory. For the first time, insurgents and pirates were interdependent. No more criminal or ideological apartheid.

Radio active mangoes

The successes of AMISOM and increased security on vessels forced criminals to think of other ways of making money. Ironically, these conditions created the perfect storm for land-based kidnappings of tourists and aid workers.

Crooks adapt and commit crimes in ways that defy the imagination. Law enforcement is always playing catch up.

Instead of beefing up security around Lamu, Kenya‘s reaction was to launch a military invasion into Somalia. This week marks the one year anniversary of Kenya Defense Forces first incursion into the failed state. Cynics and conspiracy theorists reckon Kenya and the US have wanted to do this for some time. The kidnappings offered the perfect opportunity. Some believe various governments planned the kidnappings, the murders. The victims – like most wars – were collateral damage in a long overdue war.

Drifting toward Somalia.

Since the invasion the US-backed Kenya Defense Forces (recently “re-hatted” under auspices of AMISOM) futher secured most of Mogadishu. AMISOM recently announced that it has flushed out Shabab from Kismayu, the strategic port town about 500 kms south of Mogadishu, thus cutting off one of the insurgent group’s main source of revenue — charcoal.

Has the invasion that began last October helped secure northern Kenya from its spillover of pirates and insurgents? There are too few tourists in Lamu now to test the theory, but military spokesmen and analysts say Al Shabab has dispersed deeper into the bush of Somalia. Others say they’re fleeing either south to lawless Tanzania and north to Yemen. As of this writing, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recorded a 54% drop in maritime piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Adan in the last year. It’s been reported that Somali pirates are now raiding scallop fishermen off the coast of France.

Pirates, terrorists and thugs probably have better things to do than hang around their last crime scene. Yet no one but a politician or local hoteliers would say it’s 100% safe to return to Kenya’s coast. Reminds me of the scene in ‘Jaws’ when the mayor of Martha’s Vineyard urges tourists to go back in the water, even after what could only be a great white killed two swimmers. The obvious motive was to mitigate loss of tourist revenue.

Paradise restored? View of Shela from Manda during spring tide

You would think any civic-minded stake-holder – such as the relatively wealthy hoteliers in the area – would make a lot of noise and hold local government officials accountable for the glaring lack of security. I asked one hotelier why they didn’t press officials on this matter. Did it have anything to do with the fact that the government is so rife with corruption it would be a task in futility even to try? She looked down while planting her feet in the sand and sighed. Those who dog officials might have hell to pay in the form of revoked operating licenses. Yet even for hotels to pool resources to hire private militia is not cost effective. It is understandable if unacceptable that these hoteliers lash out at journalists who try to shine a light on darkness.

Newsflash to nasty hoteliers — no one’s going to come to Lamu because they feel sorry for your loss of revenue and having to lay off your staff. It’s up to you to keep harassing officials en mass.

Lamu has been and will forever be a destination for the intrepid traveler. By ‘intrepid’ I mean you need your wits about you, not for kidnappers but petty thieves and fish mongers likely to rip you off.

After 9/11, 2001 attack on Twin Towers in NYC, some friends vowed never to board a commercial airliner again. I opted to travel more.  I figured, what were the odds of something like that ever happening again? I became more of a fatalist than I already was after living in Africa by then for many years. If you don’t, you run the risk of letting traumatic events out of your control run the rest of your life.

Counter-terror and anti-piracy officials I have spoken to say that post-election Somalia will mean an influx of aid workers. Fresh blood like this will be most vulnerable to kidnaps. If you are kidnapped be sure it’s by land-based pirates and not Shabab; it’s illegal for most governments to negotiate ransoms with designated terrorist groups.

Gabriella’s Fort.

The passage of time and a short memory for bad things that happen in beautiful places will determine whether various governments around the world decide to ease travel restrictions to Kenya. Until then they are reluctant to do so should another incident occur.

Kenya and Lamu are safe with minimal security, though I would not recommend staying in a grass hut near the beach that doesn’t have windows and doors that can lock.  Private villas and hotels in Lamu or Shela town should be fine.

Maasai askari (guard)

You have to be extremely unlucky to get kidnapped. You’re as likely to get struck by lightning in Montana or hit by a taxi in Manhattan than kidnapped by pirates in paradise.

Stopover mosque, Shela.

3 thoughts on “How safe is Kenya’s coast for tourists?

  1. Great piece Margot,narrative-writing style makes the story simple to understand,gets you close to the reader.Something more,not the stereo type style of reporting,exposes what most journalist are duped to write and miss.Interesting,,Rhetoric,hot air .. Patrol naval boats,air surveillance along the coast .Last but not least,I now have an idea why the hoteliers,property owners are silent

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