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Pirates in Paradise: Somalia’s chaos spreads across border into Kenya | Newsweek

In Newsweek Magazine

Pirates In Paradise

Oct 17, 2011 1:00 AM EDT

Somalia’s deadly chaos is spreading across the border into Kenya, where dry land is no longer a refuge from the hostage takers who infest the failed state to the north.

David and Judith Tebbutt planned to wrap up their Kenya vacation in style. After a week in the vast Maasai Mara wildlife reserve, the British couple headed to the powdery white beaches of Kiwayu Safari Village, an exclusive resort on Kenya’s northern coast. Previous guests at its 18 thatched huts have included Mick Jagger and princes William and Harry, but on this particular night the Tebbutts had the place all to themselves. After dinner the 58-year-old publishing executive and his 56-year-old wife, a social worker, walked in the moonlight along the edge of the sea to their secluded $1,720-a-night lodgings.

Shortly after midnight, one of the resort’s watchmen heard a single gunshot. David Tebbutt was found face down across the bed, its mosquito net cradling his head, dead from a bullet through his chest. His wife was gone. Footprints in the sand showed how she had been marched more than a kilometer up the shore to a cove where a skiff had apparently been moored. A search started immediately, but there was little hope of finding her. The resort is only a short distance south of a land that for the past generation has had no law but the gun: Somalia.

The Sept. 11 incident proved to be only the first in a series of unprecedented attacks. Twenty nights later and some 110 kilometers farther down the coast, a gang of Somali gunmen kidnapped Marie Dedieu, 66, a retired French journalist. And last week, even as Kenya’s armed forces strengthened their presence against attacks from the sea, suspected members of Somalia’s militant Islamist group Al-Shabab grabbed two Spanish women who were working for Doctors Without Borders in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, some 240 kilometers inland. The sprawling city of makeshift tents and huts has become home to roughly 450,000 Somalis who have been driven from their own country by war and famine. (A senior Shabab official denied that his group had anything to do with the abduction.)

Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

Somalia’s problems have boiled over and are threatening Kenya, one of the few dependably stable countries in the region. In the past the failed state’s pirates confined their attacks to ships on the open sea, and the Islamists focused their ransom kidnappings on aid workers inside Somalia. Now both groups are making hostage-taking raids on dry land, and the Kenyan nation itself is a victim. Tourism, a mainstay of the economy, was already hit hard by the global recession. But since the attacks began, vacationers have canceled their reservations en masse. Foreign investors have halted funding for major projects until the government sorts out its security problems. And the people whose livelihoods depend on tourism—not only the hoteliers, restaurateurs, shopkeepers, and employees, but their entire communities—have no idea when or if the affluent visitors will ever come back.

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The loss of jobs is being felt as far away as Nairobi, where tourists routinely stop over before heading out on safari and then going east to the beaches on the Indian Ocean. Many longtime residents of the northern coast have pulled out, looking for safer places to wait until they feel comfortable about going back. Although Somali bandits have been making forays into Kenya for more than 30 years, the attack on the Tebbutts was another matter entirely. Dedieu’s kidnapping showed that the first raid was not an isolated case. And the seizing of the Spanish women suggests that Westerners may be at risk anywhere in Kenya.

The Frenchwoman’s abductors clearly knew what they were about. They landed their eight-meter fiberglass skiff on the beach directly outside her winter residence, a spacious thatched hut on Manda island in the Lamu archipelago, in the early hours of Oct. 1. Dedieu had returned from her summer in France only a day before. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying assault rifles, the intruders first made their way to the rear of the property, where most members of Dedieu’s household staff lived, and awakened them at gunpoint, demanding in broken Swahili to be led to the ‘mzungu’—the foreigner. When one servant tried to argue, a gunman slammed her with his rifle butt.

As the Somalis forced their way into the main hut, Dedieu’s companion, a 39-year-old Kenyan named John Lepapa, leaped from his bed to protect her. One of the men fired at him, and Lepapa managed to escape through a window. At the beach hut next door, an elderly caretaker heard the commotion and ran to intervene. A gunman fired three shots at him, and the old man dived for cover in the remains of a fallen baobab tree at the property’s edge. Dedieu had no way to save herself; she’s been confined to a wheelchair ever since an accident years ago. The Somalis tried to force her to stand up and walk before dragging her out of the hut, nearly naked, while the housemaids begged them at least to carry her. Tossing their prisoner into the boat, the men put out to sea, leaving behind both Dedieu’s wheelchair and the cancer medication she’s supposed to take every four hours. The raid took less than 20 minutes.

Dedieu’s friends and neighbors are furious with the government—and particularly with their local law enforcers. People on Manda immediately began dialing the emergency number for the police station, on nearby Lamu island, but the calls went unanswered until 6 a.m., more than three hours after the attack. The cops sent a boat to Manda to investigate, but soon returned to Lamu to gather reinforcements—which was not a simple task. Although Lamu’s police have three boats, each equipped with twin 115-horsepower outboard engines, two of the boats were out of commission that morning. Instead officers had to hire one 140-horsepower craft from a local captain and requisition another from the Kenya Wildlife Serv-ice. By the time the necessary paperwork was filled out and the boats were gassed up, it was 8 o’clock. They headed north at full speed.


People on Manda knew better than to wait for the police to respond. Around 4 that morning, someone phoned three local pilots—charter air-service owner Roland Purcell and luxury-hotel proprietors Andy Roberts and Fuzz Dyer—who dressed as quickly as they could and headed for their planes. All three had done what they could in the search for Judith Tebbutt three weeks earlier, but her kidnappers had too much of a head start. This time the pilots had no intention of letting another gang of kidnappers slip away. By first light they were on the runway at the controls of two Cessna 206 planes, and at 6 a.m. they were in the air. Purcell flew solo.

They traced the coast north, with one plane staying five kilometers offshore and the other flying 10 kilometers out. Forty-five minutes later they spotted a skiff heading north, just south of Kiwayu Safari Village. The pilots had no doubt that they had found the kidnappers. “We knew we had the right boat when we realized we were being shot at,” says Dyer. They couldn’t see Dedieu, but they figured she had to be under a tarpaulin that had been thrown across the bottom of the skiff. The pilots reported the kidnappers’ location to the Kenyan Navy and circled overhead. The boat sped up, and the pilots continued to send regular updates on its position.

The Kenyan Navy had sent out a small skiff to intercept the kidnappers, but it struck a coral reef and capsized. The pilots saw the sailors in the water as the Cessnas flew on after the kidnappers. At least two of the 10 sailors aboard were killed, according to the Lamu police. One of the dead later washed ashore, and another died after being transported to a hospital in Mombasa. A third reportedly remains missing.

A little farther north, the pilots spotted a pair of Kenyan Navy attack boats that apparently had been on patrol along the border. Roberts and Dyer managed to get the mobile-phone number for the captain of one of the boats, and the pilots guided the vessels toward the kidnappers’ skiff. When the Kenyans closed in on their quarry, Dyer says, there was “a serious exchange of gunfire,” although he can’t say whether anyone was hit. The kidnappers managed to slip past their pursuers, but the attack boats gave chase and again caught up to the kidnappers, who answered with a storm of gunfire. The spatter of bullets on the water was visible near the two attack boats—and then a cloud of smoke appeared above the skiff, followed by a big splash not far from one attack boat’s bow. It was a rocket-propelled grenade, says Dyer.

The pilots watched helplessly as the skiff reached Somalia’s territorial waters around 9:15. The Kenyans broke off their pursuit, apparently unwilling to violate Somalia’s sovereignty. “They were probably scared,” says a Lamu police officer. “None of them even know how to swim.” But Purcell followed the skiff north, while Roberts and Dyer flew back to the Kenyan naval air base at Kiunga to refuel. About six and a half kilometers north of the Islamist stronghold of Ras Kamboni, the kidnappers beached their skiff at a deserted spit of land. Carrying Dedieu, they walked a short distance inland and settled down in the shade of an acacia tree. Purcell and his partners stayed there until dark, circling the area in relays, one plane keeping watch while the other flew south to refuel. The gunmen never moved.

The pilots say they spent the whole day in communication with foreign forces who kept promising help. The three men wanted to be there to point out the spot where the gunmen were hiding. “There was talk of French, U.S., and U.K. military being activated,” says Dyer. “That’s why we hung in until last light.” At about 4 o’clock a Kenyan Navy helicopter flew in briefly to disable the skiff, in case the kidnappers decided to sail on, but no one else showed up. The last image the pilots had before they gave up and flew home was of Dedieu and her kidnappers sheltering under that acacia as darkness descended. At dawn the next morning, Purcell returned to look for her, having memorized the acacia’s precise location, but she and the gunmen were gone.

As we went to press, there had been no public ransom demands for any of the kidnapped Europeans. The Spanish aid workers were last seen in a vehicle that was speeding toward Somalia, with Kenyan security forces in hot pursuit. The vehicle was found abandoned a day later, some 20 kilometers from the border. The aid workers remained missing. Dedieu’s situation may be even more precarious, although the French government is said to have reason to believe she’s alive. Two days after her kidnapping, members of the French Consulate were at the Peponi Hotel bar, just across the channel from Manda, when an urgent call from their embassy in Nairobi sent them frantically in search of John Lepapa to pick up her cancer medication—and late last week her captors reportedly promised that she would receive it. The Frenchwoman is thought to be in Somalia’s Shabab–controlled southern tip, possibly in Kismaayo—assuming she is in fact alive. There have been no formal arrests in connection with her case, although the elderly caretaker next door was jailed overnight after losing his temper when police questioned him.

And the kidnapped Englishwoman, Judith Tebbutt? She’s thought to be in the village of Amara, inland from the coastal town of Xarardheere, a notorious nest of pirates roughly 400 kilometers up the coast from Mogadishu. Amara is where a pirate known as Buggas held Paul and Rachel Chandler prisoner for more than a year after capturing the British couple’s yacht off the Seychelles in October 2009. Early last year the hardline Islamists of Al-Shabab boasted that they had driven the pirates out of Xarardheere, but since then the two groups appear to have reached a financial understanding despite their radically differ-ent lifestyles. Al-Shabab has gone so far as to issue a public denial that it is holding Tebbutt.

The day after the Englishwoman’s disappearance, a former Kiwayu Safari Village night watchman was arrested in connection with the case. A farmer from a nearby village tipped off the cops that Ali Babitu Kololo, a member of the hunter-gatherer Boni tribe, had been seen in Kiunga village, just south of the Somali border. The Boni have traditionally traded with their Somali neighbors and were formerly known to serve as scouts for Somali ivory poachers, back when the region still had elephants. Hearing that police were looking for him, Kololo turned himself in. A lanky, youthful-looking father of three, he was arraigned in Lamu on Sept. 19 and entered a plea of not guilty to a charge of Òrobbery with violence.Ó He admitted to investigators that he led a gang of Somalis to Kiwayu Safari Village but insisted that the men had forced him at gunpoint to be their guide.

At this point, no one can be sure just what’s behind the pirates’ apparent change of prey. Some observers think intensified military vigilance and tougher shipboard security may be causing the pirates to make a long-term shift to softer targets. “The kidnappings suggest a new modus operandi for piracy in general—that the value in piracy no longer lies in ships or vessels but in the individual hostages themselves,” says Alan Cole, the program coordinator for counterpiracy at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. He traces the trend back to the capture of the Chandlers aboard their yacht in 2009. Their captors initially demanded $7 million but finally settled for approximately $930,000 in ransom money contributed by London’s community of Somali taxi drivers hoping to rescue their country’s blighted reputation.

Others say the change is only temporary. The region’s monsoon season has deterred pirates from prowling the commercial shipping lanes the way they do in fair weather, and dry-land kidnapping may only be a new way for them to make money until the storms are past. For the time being, however, no one wants to take chances. “We are trying to head off a catastrophe,” Dyer said at a security meeting in Lamu two days after the Dedieu kidnapping. George Moorhead, the owner of Kiwayu Safari Village, was also at the meeting. He stood staring at the floor like a mourner at a funeral.

These days their tropical paradise looks more like a war zone (minus the bullet-riddled buildings). “Before, there was no security at all,” says Stefano Moccia, owner of The Majlis, a $1,700-a-night hotel on Manda island. “Now it must be forever.” Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie spent this past New Year’s Eve at his hotel, and Kenya’s prime minster, Raila Odinga, was a guest there in the spring. In the wake of Dedieu’s kidnapping, eight armed police officers patrol the length of Manda beach from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.—not to mention the four police officers who are stationed in front of the Peponi Hotel on Shela beach; the military helicopter now based at Manda island’s airport; and the Kenyan Navy patrol boat that sits in the channel between Shela and Manda islands—the same channel the kidnappers used when they grabbed Dedieu.

Perched on a small sand bluff just down the beach from Dedieu’s grass hut, the hotel also employs a team of Maasai night watchmen armed with clubs and belted knives, just to stay on the safe side. For what it’s worth, Moccia agrees with local authorities and other hoteliers that Dedieu’s kidnappers must have had inside information. “Someone on the island knew she was coming back to Lamu and tipped them off,” Moccia says. (Never mind that the kidnappers appeared to have no idea that Dedieu needed a wheelchair.) “No guards, right on the beach—it was easy.”

Still, police and private guards are no guarantee of safety. Kiwayu Safari Village’s Moorhead requested extra police protection in the days before the Tebbutt murder-kidnapping. Gangs of armed Somalis had been seen lurking in the neighborhood. According to Steven Ikua, the district commissioner for West Lamu, there were 20 uniformed police officers patrolling the area around the resort that night, in addition to the dozen or so watchmen Moorhead routinely employed. High seas and a strong wind kept anyone from hearing the gunshot except one of those watchmen, who told one of the cops. When asked what the remaining watchmen were doing at the time, a Kenyan government official just shook his head and smiled: “Probably sleeping.”

Will the kidnappers come back? “Not possible now,” Ikua declares. “We have put men on the border and warships at sea. We are now well equipped so that it never happens again.” Dyer isn’t so hopeful. “All of Kenya is dangerous for kidnappings,” he says. “Eastleigh [a Somali neighborhood in Nairobi] may as well be Mogadishu—you can kidnap someone in the middle of Nairobi, take them to Eastleigh, and keep them there for as long as you like. Nobody’s going to find them.” To Robert Young Pelton, author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places and editor of the blog Somalia Report, there’s only one way to be sure. “Let’s hope people drop from the sky and put some bullets in surprised foreheads,” he says. “That should dampen their ardor. Pirates are in it for the money, and because there are no penalties for audacity.”

Still, that’s no way to bring back the tourists. While Kenyan security forces patrol the country’s seacoast towns and territorial waters, resorts and hotels stand empty. Their staffs have been sent home with no way to feed their families. How desperate would they have to become before northern Kenya turns into another Somalia? No one wants to find out. But the fact is that until Kenya finds the political will to sort out its glaring lack of security, the country will continue to be more like Somalia than anyone cares or dares to admit. And for now, the waters around Lamu’s islands, ordinarily a cacophony of boat engines and tourists’ laughter, are eerily quiet.

Editor’s note: The print version of this story in Newsweek described Moorhead as sitting and wearing a jacket.

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Margot Kiser is a Kenya-based American correspondent covering piracy, geopolitics, and wildlife conservation in East Africa. She is currently at work on a memoir of her life as a safari wife in post-socialist Tanzania, where she established a wildlife-conservation area at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Update-Kenya kidnappings

The first incident — the murder and kidnapping at Kiwayu — was alone brazen enough to seem  a declaration of war. As weeks passed it seemed as though that might have been a one-off, an isolated crime of opportunity. Not the handiwork of pirates. Just thugs. Maybe even just local thugs.

Then there was Marie Dedieu. Like an alien abduction, pirates had snatched her from a small community and whisked her off into a black star-less hole. Maybe not a declaration of war, but, surely, a statement. The statement being: your “closed” borders are as porous as pirate’s ratty T-shirt, your navy personnel can’t swim, and your local police are napping at the switch.

JAMBO?!  Wake up —  Kenya has serious security issues, particularly along the coast, where authorities much patrol both land and sea.

Then, whoa, two more grabbed in Kenya on Thursday. This time aid workers in Dadaab,  the world’s largest refugee camp, just inside the Kenya border.

Bad weather forced the abductors to abandon their car which got stuck in the mud. Police found the vehicle just inside the Somali border. For an instant, there was a chance police might catch up and rescue the Spanish nationals.

It’s not breaking news that Al Shabab (“Movement of Striving Youth”), a group of Islamic militants, has been thwarting efforts of aid orgs (World Food Program, for one) to deliver food to the famine victims. Not only is it a way for Shabab to make a quick buck selling the donated food in markets, but also of saying “fuck you” to the west aid.

These latest abductors had entered Kenya in the guise of famine victims — wolves in sheep’s clothing — and had been able to case the joint. Like the earlier Lamu kidnappings — it was easy. It’s the proud policy of Medicins sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) not to be politically aligned and these aid workers didn’t use security, i.e. armed body guards.  And, like Tebbutt and Dedieu, they were women. Soft targets that the pirates/Shabab know will draw sympathy and whose media exposure pressures  governments to release them — at a price.

While the first two kidnappings were likely work of pirates, it’s seems pretty clear that the Shabab is behind kidnappings at Dedaab. It’s more or less confirmed that Judith is being held in a famous pirate’s nest north of Mogadishu.

While pirates initially grabbed Marie,  Shebab may have recently muscled in on the pirates. Shebab and pirates are supposed to have reached an understanding that for a hefty price pirates are allowed to moor their boats and/or pass through south Somalia, controlled by Shebab. The price is reportedly USD 300K a month.

Since militant group broke up in Mogadishu last spring, they’ve lost their backing from diaspora and other sponsors. Shabab members have dispersed and are now cash-strapped.

The number of piracy attacks has escalated this year, but their success has declined thanks to bad weather and increased security on commercial vessels. The tidy lines dividing the political Shabab groups versus piracy’s extreme capitalism are now blurred when all factions need money. Are individual hostages the new ATM’s? Easy to snatch, easy to stash for quick cash.

With no ransom demand yet either for Judith, Marie, and the other two whose names we don’t yet know, it remains whether Shebab is now operating on the pirate model of strictly business vs a political statement. Let’s hope it’s only for the money.

Crescent Moon on Manda

At least pirates have a financial incentive to keep you alive.

Mercifully, word is that Marie’s captors in a Shebab strong-hold in the south are allowing Red Cross to bring in her cancer medication. It’s not been confirmed whether she’s received it yet. Remember, they’re not permitting her medication out of the goodness of their hearts.


Suspected Pirates Abduct Frenchwoman in Kenya

Ten heavily armed gunman reportedly stormed the beach near Lamu island in Kenya early this morning, firing shots, and abducting an handicapped Frenchwoman from her sea front grass hut.
According to Lamu police, the gunmen and their hostage “went out into the open sea”.
Around 2 AM, residents of Shella, a small European enclave near Lamu, awoke to the sound of gun shots and found nightwatchmen with flashlights frantically searching the shores of the exclusive Manda island for the Frenchwoman.
Residents of Lamu know well the petite 65 year old, Marie Dedieu, a former journalist. She had arrived from France the day before to settle into her simple Robinson Crusoe-style grass hut, where for decades she had wintered.
This latest kidnapping comes on the heels of the murder and abduction on September 11th of two tourists at Kiwayu Safari Village less than 25 miles from the Somali border. Two gunmen shot dead the husband and abducted his wife presumed to now to be in Somalia in the hands either of Al Shabab or pirates.
The lay out of the Frenchwoman’s home on Manda island was similar to the accommodation provided at Kiwayu Safari Village where just two weeks ago the Tebbutt incident took place — a grass hut with no locks right on the beach. Stips of grass matting hung like a beaded curtain and was all that separated her from a coast that – although nearby an exclusive boutique hotel – is in many ways still the wild African coast.
As this latest victim was disabled and defenseless, she was ripe for the picking.
According to a witness, a total of three shots were fired; one inside the hut to scare the Frenchwoman and her two house-girls. Two more shots were fired in the direction of a nearby compound, where tourists were renting bandas.
The gunmen reportedly forced the two house girls to carry the Frenchwoman to the boat and took off in 15 horsepower (TK) engine. Witnesses also noted that the boat had engine trouble while leaving the beach.
The easy approach onto Manda island beach is also similar to that of Kiwayu Safari Village. Authorities have already arrested an elderly employee of Manda Lay, a compound of bandas rented to tourists.
Witness on Manda island (not to be confused with Manda Bay Resort) said they had several times called Lamu police emergency 999 number, but no one answered.
An exchange of gunfire between police and the suspected gunmen was reported this morning off the coast of Mkononi, the fishing town nearest to Kiwayu Safari Village, where the Tebbutt incident took place. Gunman there reportedly open fire at the police with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) from their boat. Police didn’t return fire for fear of harming the hostage.

Just as media coverage of the Tebbutt murder-abduction was beginning to die down, this abduction on land and well within legal jurisdiction of Kenya will no doubt revive further speculation as to whether pirates or Al Shabab have adopted a new MO.
It now appears as though anyone — tourists and seasonal residents alike — trying to live the simple, primitive life in a hut on northern coast of Kenya is vulnerable to whims of armed thugs.
The only responses to the Tebbutt and Manda kidnappings appear to have been through the private initiatives of local tour operators, who have sent their own boats and small aircraft to search for hostages.
Residents and tour operators are expressing outrage and frustration that the Kenyan government hasn’t taken more militant proactive measures to protect tourists from armed thugs who are all too aware of Kenya’s poor security along the coast.

Tourism, the country’s biggest revenue earner, will suffer in the beautiful Lamu archipelago, a region having the bad luck of being situated perilously close to Somalia, a failed state and considered one of the world’s most dangerous places on earth.

Loss of jobs – from hotel staff to boat drivers – will no doubt have a trickle down effect as far away as Nairobi, where tourists stay before heading on safari and to the coast.
Though environmentalists and some locals oppose the imminent construction of the deep water Lamu Port, its presence could guarantee security in the region.

Manda island

Hunter-gatherer arraigned for murder and kidnapping of British tourists

Ali Babitu KOHOLO, 25, being led to Lamu court at 9:30 yesterday. He was arraigned for his role in the Tebbutt attack on charges of ROBBERY W VIOLENCE.
He is thought to have guided the gunman to Kiwayu Safari village and to TEBBUTT’S beach cottage.


Trip to Eastleigh -A Tree Grows in “Little Mogadishu”

As a primer for my impending trip to Somalia, my friend, an attorney, picked me at Muthaiga club this Sunday to stroll the “streets” of Eastleigh, an ad hoc city within Nairobi that first sprouted as a refugee camp of sorts after wore broke out in Somalia in the early 90’s. It has since mushroomed into a full-fledged sized city – albeit not officially recognized as such. As far as I know it lacks a proper post office, schools, and

A Tree Grows in Little Mogadishu

elected or appointed officials who represent the area. It’s believed that %99 of Somalis living live here illegally. Police routinely arrest random Somalis, who within hours, bribe their way out of jail.

Chaos prevails and young men carrying several pounds of clothing or charcoal on their backs have right of way, often bumping us into the streets.

And yet, in Eastleigh, you can buy almost anything — the Louis Vuitton might be fake but the grenades and handguns are not.  My friend and I were looking for computer bags. We found a “maradadi” (nice-looking) one made of green canvas. But a zipper broke immediately.

It’s no accident that the larger complexes — essentially multi-story malls — are dubbed “Bangkok” and “Hong Kong” for the acres of smuggled goods, mostly cheap and they all looked the same. Mercifully, I didn’t see any animals for sale. I kept losing sight of Adeel, who wore khaki safari-type clothes.

I felt safe and soon realized you didn’t have to be alert as much for pick-pockets as cars that race through streets, consisting of three foot standing waves of dirt. Drivers seemed to have no qualms of running anyone over. Every car seemed to be backing up looking for a parking space. A pair of shoes lay strewn and abandoned on the sidewalk. How did they get there? Adeel explained that the owner of the shoes was likely run over.

We looked at  cheap “cotton” shirts and shiny jackets with Marks and Spencer labels sewn inside. Each suq or kiosk seemed to be peddling the same less than desirable quality goods. We resisted the urge to buy because it was inexpensive.

My friend was particularly interested in buying gold bricks. Somali men and woman selling gold-plaited jewelry had no clue, but an Ethiopian clothes salesman said he could find us “black rocks” – green, yellow and pink inside.

Let’s go, I said. He promised to organize a viewing the next day. He warned us to be wary of salesman. Most are “faruidsters”. What? Ah, fraudsters.

But we had no intention of returning.

We left empty-handed.


Lamu Painter’s Festival 2011

Artists at work outside in the elements are often – correctly – labeled “street artists”, and pass their time sketching kitsch for tourists in big cities. But nothing could be farther from how Herbert Menzer, a wild and wacky German visionary/ real estate developer/accidental politician/friend to all, envisioned the first annual Lamu Painters Festival.

Menzer’s idea was that artists, mainly from European Realist and Impressionists styles, would capture en plein air the essence of the Islamic island and Swahili life, providing a reminder – and perhaps a record – of Lamu’s value as a UNESCO world heritage site as it rapidly becomes Westernized. An avid art collector, he arranged for nineteen professional painters from Germany, Netherlands, and Kenya to express Lamu’s traditional culture and natural beauty through their artwork.

Artists who had never set foot on the African continent – let alone on Lamu – met all manner of logistical challenges — getting their paint tubes through airport security, navigating the cat and donkey-jammed Byzantine alley ways, coping with sand flung onto their works-in-progress and the incomprehensible Swahili language. No less, though, were they delighted to find a variety of exotic subject matters; palms on sugar-white sand dunes, 15th century Swahili architecture, impenetrable Burka-clad khol-eyed women, donkey and cat-clogged Byzantine alleys, Herbert Menzer, and the Lamu District Commissioner.

But did these artists, most familiar with stormy or wintry landscapes wrought in “moderate” tones, feel they captured the Equatorial East African light, warmth and sultriness of it all?

Dutch painter, Piet Groenendijk, stuck to the subdued European hues, worrying that turquoise skies and peachy sunsets could become easily appear maudlin, like from a souvenir stand.

When he returns next year, he vows to use colors like cobalt blue. “It is a lot to absorb here,” remarks Piet, “and you cannot paint culture shock.”

Not surprisingly, Kenya-based artist, Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos, originally from Eritrea, ventured from near life-size portraits of locals to landscapes, keeping to his trademark bold, broad strokes with the breadth of house-painting brushes. He was intrigued to note that by the end of the three-week marathon that he began experimenting with smaller brush strokes typical of his European colleagues.

Leningrad trained Natalia Dik, produced works with an epic 19th century feel. Some of the best paintings avoided gilding the lily by denying how Lamu has changed; inserts of satellite dishes, telephone wires, new vacation houses on Manda island added charm to the otherwise postcard perfect scenery.

Coming to Africa with its warm, tropical colors was like coming home, said Dutch painter, Deiderik Vermeulen. What was he taking away from the experience? How “cheerful” everyone was – especially those at Peponi restaurant after 5 pm.

Unfortunately, most of the painters had left by the end of the festival’s three weeks, taking their art with them to sell in European galleries.

But one can view the hundreds of works they produced during the festival on Lamu Painters Festival’s Facebook page.

“The festival was just my funny idea,” insists Herbert, who was given and/or bought many of the best paintings, “it is not about the money.”















Lamu’s Patriot Games/The Last Dorito – Junkfood Jihad

Most Sundays I join friends for “prayers” at the local fabled watering hole that feels more like a club both in decor and exclusivity.

This Equatorial club must endure the odd out of sorts tourist who flushes through, their khakis and Tevas and dazed expressions are evidence that they flew in straight from a safari in the Mara. They appear impervious to the Beach Boys psychotic drug-induced rants over at the grassy knoll desiginated for Beach Boys. Their mind boggles — I hear this in New York city all the time. But in Lamu?

The other kind of semi-tourists are the U.S. Navy boys based near Magagoni  or the so-called Manda Bay military base near the future Lamu port site. I had heard that these young bucks frequented this bar for their weekend R&R, but for all the Sundays I had genuflected over Young Pals, I had yet to lay eyes on any of them. I had assumed that they were more or less hard to detect for their stealth-like discretion. Maybe they were wandering around pretending to look like ultra-clean shaven backpackers.

Last Sunday, I got more than I bargained for — not only were they obvious by their mid-Western accents, large high-tech water proof Army issue watches and Oakley shades, they were shirtless, exposing bellicose tats, ploughed and talking to anyone who would listen. I bailed on my usual pew partners, when the boys invited me on an afternoon dhow ride replete with a fresh red snapper lunch.

But forget the fish (or indeed the young officer young enough to be my son, but who had made a pass at me all the same); I was infinitely more intrigued by the can of DORITOS that was being passed around. COOL RANCH, no less. Out of sight, out of mind, indeed. Never knew how much I missed them – the Doritos.

— “Mark” from Mississippi, all of 23, proudly confirmed that all food served on the base – even Christmas turkeys – is transported directly from the U.S. to prevent potential food poisoning by the likes of Al Qaeda or indeed by poor local Swahili fisherman. Mark had relayed this as if this action were a clever (if arguably paranoid) preemptive strike on part of the US military. Never mind that the Doritos themselves have enough poison in the form of preservatives to kill an Al Qaeda training battalion.

In the space of an hour, our lovely old Mozambique dhow morphed into a sailing college dorm party; people kept walking on a pair of broken Oakleys and an Iphone, straining with the tinny sounds of heavy metal music;  we slipped on chapitis and grilled snapper by then creamed to a paste on the wooden floor of the dhow.

I thought I had lost my appetite when I noted that a spilled can oozing a slimy cocktail of tobacco chew and Tusker beer. While the boys (and some girls) were swilling down the Vodka and Tuskers then diving off the dhow, I remained on board devouring every last Dorito, though not before slowly licking the ranch salad dressing flavor off each side.

You can take the American out of the poison, but you can’t take the poison out of an American. Give me Junk food poison or give me death!