Tawfiq Ahmed’s mornings are a reflection of the place he calls home. He doesn’t like to be rushed. He likes to be in control of his time. The chubby faced man feels like he has his own destiny in his hands and the lords of fate have nothing on him. But the past two years have sent his head on a spin. It seems that for those two years, he relinquished all control and his days were determined by other factors.
“Nyinyi mumetembea Lamu mumeona shida yoyote (Have you seen any problems in Lamu)?” he asks.
He likes to sit on an easy chair on kikoi draped cushions looking out towards the sea. “I spent more than a year without looking at my guest book. We were not getting any bookings,” he says. “We only started to get calls recently. We pray that such misfortune does not visit us again.”
Tawfiq’s life, like that of many other people in Lamu County, was affected by the 2014 Mpeketoni massacre. Official records put the death toll at more than 80. Witness accounts at the time said most victims were dragged from their houses in full view of their families and led to their deaths.
The aftermath of the orgy of violence hit hard. A dawn to dusk curfew that lasted almost a year was imposed. Livelihoods for a county that depends on trade on the mainland and tourism for the archipelago suffered.
And perhaps, for the first time in his life, Tawfiq admitted he is not in control of his fate. “We got calls on that day from friends outside the country asking us if Lamu was safe. We did not know what was happening,” he says.
News was slow to filter into Lamu. Bahari Beach House, the hotel that Tawfiq runs, has neither TV nor radio. There is an internet connection but who would want to be bogged down by the cares of the world transmitted in a virtual reality when confronted with the natural beauty that Lamu has to offer?
“The next calls I got and for the month that followed was only for cancellations. The next year was rough on us,” he says.
To cope, the hotelier, who has lived his whole life on Shela beach, had to look for an alternative means of income. “I am not a herder but I had to look for cows to rear,” he says.
But now, after the death, the curfews that stifled life and what looked like a looming economic depression, the island is rising again to claim its rightful place. “We are getting bookings now,” Nina Chauvez of the Moon Houses in Lamu says. “We are slowly getting back to where we were before the crisis set in.”
For Nina though, the crisis could and should have been prevented. “We sank that low because of an irresponsible media. All illustrations of the story in local and international media were of Lamu Island. This is a perception we have tried to fight for so long,” she says.
On October 1, 2011 at around 3am, an armed gang docked their speedboat on the white sandy beaches of Manda and stormed into the house French national Marie Dedieu and abducted her. The Kenyan government said the abductors were Al Shabaab militants. The kidnap came three weeks after a UK couple was attacked further north.
Two weeks after the abduction, Kenya waged war on the Al Shabaab, resulting in a drawn out guerilla war that snaked out of Somalia and into Kenya, bringing with it venom that threatened to eat away the peaceful existence of the island.
The repercussions of Kenya’s foray into Somalia were immense. On the mainland, fear was planted. “Many left and have never been back. Life has been different since then. Harder,” Irene Mutua, or Mama Joshua as her friends know her, says.
Many more residents left Mpeketoni after the 2014 massacre. On the night of the attack, her stall was razed to the ground. Since then, she has been unable to lift herself or her business up. But amidst the ash, some have started to make baby steps towards a return to normalcy.
Moving on has come at a price and Walid Ahmed Ali knows this too well. “Now if you stand up against anything, they call you Al Shabaab,” he says. Last year, Walid and a few of his friends from the Lamu Youth Council were arrested on allegations of having funded the massacres. He was later released without charge.
Walid believes a broader all-inclusive future awaits the residents. “We have hit the bottom. We have seen how it looks like and we don’t like it. We can only move forward from here,” he says.
Lamu residents believe that the scars from a difficult two years are fading, and that it is only a matter of time before she blossoms into her natural beauty once again.
And when this happens, maybe, just maybe, Tawfiq will start looking forward to controlling his fate once again.