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Influx of wealthy Westerners changing the face of Islamic settlement

LAMU, Kenya—Sidestepping donkey droppings and packs of women in full Muslim dress, a thin, mustachioed tour guide led visitors through the tight streets of this old Muslim town, pausing in front of nearly every house.

Lamu's stately limestone residences are among the world's best examples of Swahili architecture, some dating to the 16th century. But the guide didn't talk about the facades. Usually, his descriptions were confined to the homeowners.

"This one is an American businessman," he said, pointing to a gleaming stone facade. Or "This one a German." Several times he said, "This is an English."

More than six centuries after Arabs settled the tiny island of Lamu, this secluded outpost of Islam in East Africa is seeing a new wave of arrivals: well-heeled Westerners lured by pristine beaches, a quiet lifestyle and singular old-stone architecture.

Art dealers, corporate titans and European royals are among those paying scandalously high prices for property. Contractors are reaping a windfall as new owners shell out tens of thousands of dollars more on coral stone, mangrove timber and other materials to return the residences to their original grandeur—while adding conveniences such as flush toilets and wall sockets.

But civic leaders fear that the new arrivals, most of whom merely vacation here and don't participate in Lamu's closely knit community, are diluting the town's rich Islamic culture. Already, they say, the influx of money has made homes in the oldest section of town impossible for local people to afford.

Foreigners now own half of the stone town—some 150 houses—according to the town clerk. Some bought directly from Lamu families who've resettled elsewhere; others dealt with foreign speculators who'd refurbished houses bought at low prices from locals, then resold them at top dollar.

"The current pace of selling houses to foreigners will destroy us," said Hussein Soud, a member of Lamu's council of elders. "The time will come where nothing will be owned by the indigenous people."

There've been no major clashes between Lamu residents and their new neighbors, but Soud said it was only a matter of time. Most of Lamu's 20,000 people have lived here all their lives. Nine out of 10 are Muslim, and the centers of public life are the mosques, of which there are more than two dozen. Men cover their heads with brimless, embroidered kofia hats and women are fully covered in the tropical heat.

"Culturally the Islamic way of life here is intact," Soud said, "but if too many people who are not from here and who are not Muslim come in, there is no doubt we will change."

Lamu has always been exceptional in East Africa. Situated in the Indian Ocean at a crossroads of Arab, African and Indian cultures, it was ruled by the sultan of Zanzibar, Lamu's larger and better-known island cousin to the south, until it was made part of newly independent Kenya in 1963.

Backpackers discovered the island's sand and solitude in the 1970s, and before long it was drawing visitors from around the world, including a growing number who wanted to stay.

Paul Weaver, an American banker living in Germany, came to Lamu with a friend on a three-day holiday in 1989. They ended up staying two weeks and buying a 450-year-old house for about $40,000, becoming two of the first foreigners to own property in town.

Weaver converted to Islam, took the name Malik and supervised the renovation of their three-story home, called "Baytil Ajaib" or "House of Wonder." It's now one of Lamu's best-restored homes, featuring the inner courtyard, intricate limestone carvings and elegant mahogany furnishings that mark the Swahili style.

Weaver occasionally advises other foreigners who want to buy and restore homes. Since the town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, the market has boomed; a Westerner recently paid about $375,000 for a house smaller than Weaver's.

Weaver said foreigners had revived interest in preservation and had helped to rescue many stone houses that had fallen into disrepair.

"Lamu had sunk into such misery. It had become such a rundown place," Weaver said. "The technique to restore houses in the original way—with coral stones, sand, limestone, no cement—had been lost."

Civic leaders fear that their town will go the way of Shela, a once-sleepy fishing village to the south that now features $300-a-night hotels and opulent vacation homes, including one that belongs to the crown princess of Monaco and her husband, Germany's prince of Hanover.

Multimillion-dollar boats float in Shela's crystalline bay alongside the wooden dhows that remain the locals' fastest mode of transport.

While there've been no major collisions between foreigners and locals, there have been some minor clashes. An American who lives across a narrow alleyway from Lamu's imam, Mahmoud Ahmed Abdul Kadir, recently complained about the sound from the imam's television, threatening to call the police. Kadir brushed it off.

"He said he came 7,000 miles to run away from television," the imam said. "But just because he is running away doesn't mean the rest of us have to run away also."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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