In 2012 the Kenyan government announced a massively ambitious development project that would have seen life change dramatically in Lamu, had it come to fruition. The proposed project envisioned the archipelago hosting one of the biggest ports in East Africa, an oil pipeline from South Sudan, a series of new resorts, a new airport, railways to South Sudan and Ethiopia and multi-lane highways that will link Lamu to the rest of the country. To date, beyond the ongoing work on the port, the rest of the plans seem to have fallen by the wayside.
Lamu Town realises Swahili urban-planning conventions like few other places in the world. Within the seemingly random conglomeration of streets is a patchwork of neighbourhoods and districts divided by family hierarchy, social standing and profession.
There are 28 mitaa (districts) in Lamu, with names that range from the functional, such as Madukani (Place of Shopping), to the esoteric, such as Makadara (Eternal Destiny), to the funny, such as Kivundoni (Smelly Place). In addition, the town is divided into two halves: the north, Zena (Beauteous), and the south, Suudi (Fortunate).
This division stems from the traditional contempt of the Zijoho (Arab-Swahili elite) for trade. The Zena half of town is, to this day, where the grandest houses are to be found, while the main markets, noisy activity and – to be frank – poorer residents are generally on the Suudi side of the tracks. Note that the construction/restoration of grand houses by foreigners has disrupted this dynamic, but it’s still present – you’ll notice most of these new villas are on the Zena side of town.