Keeping the ‘mzungu’ safe from kidnappers in Kenya's Lamu

Walking down Kenya’s Lamu Island’s waterfront with Mohammed Aweso, my aweso-awesome local guide, a young man mutters something as he passes us.

Mohammed bursts out in a quick, involuntary laugh.

“What did he say?” I ask.

‘Nothing, nothing,’ says Mohammed.

But I know it’s something about me - probably my strange attire?

We’ve been reporting under the unrelenting noonday sun and in my broiling desperation, I ducked into a Lamu market store and bought a dazzling white kikoy -- or traditional Kenyan sarong-cum-shawl-cum-baby sling-cum-everything.

It’s about twice my size and I’ve looped it messily over my head like some deranged Iranian peasant woman. Is my sartorial style provoking some mirth in these parts?

Apparently not.

Mohammed relents and repeats the witticism. “Mukikosa wazungu mutafiwa,” which he translates from the native Kiswahili as, “If you lose the foreigners, you’re fucked.”

That’s hilarious.

The singular for wazungu is mzungu, and it’s a word the kids on the island trill out as they trail me.

There was a time when Lamu was crawling with wazungu, but there are virtually none of them around these days.

The Lamu archipelago, which lies near the Kenyan-Somali border, has been declared a no-go zone by wazungu governments due to the security situation.

Among the handful of foreign visitors – I know them well, we keep bumping into each other – most of them seem to be from Belgium. That figures, I tell one of them. You guys don’t have a government – who’s going to issue government travel advisories?

When one mzungu turns on another mzungu

So, besides the odd Belgian, there are no tourists here – and that’s a disaster for Lamu’s economy. (Click here for my piece on Lamu's beleaguered tourism sector.)

The Lamu locals are, for the most part, a very welcoming, laidback lot. But one mzungu hotel owner turned pretty nasty when he learned I was a journalist. For some reason, mzungu-hotelier seemed to think the journalists reporting the story are the problem - not the failures of the Kenyan security services or the long-ignored instability in neighboring Somalia.

Mzungu-hotelier told me he got a foreign journalist thrown out of Lamu by reporting her to the local authorities. “You know how it is, it’s very easy to find some problems with journalists’ papers and get them kicked out,” he said.

Nothing like one immigrant turning on another immigrant. Nice guy. I avoid him.

Couple of weeks ago, the boss of a European-owned restaurant/bar doused a US journalist with ice-cold water and told her to, “Take your fucking article and go back to New York City where you might be safer.” (You can read all about that here.)

Now I’m just here to peaceably do my job. I try to do it as unobtrusively as a brown girl wrapped in an enormous white kikoy possibly can. This is a tiny island, word gets around.

Inside Marie Dedieu's beach-hut

So when Mohammed and I take a boat from the main Lamu Island to Manda, the island where Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu lived before she was kidnapped last month, I’m in slow-down, watchful mode.

Wheelchair-bound, 66-year-old Dedieu was abducted in the dead of night from her Manda banda, or thatched beach-hut, and taken to neighbouring Somalia.

A cancer patient, Dedieu was in frail health and French authorities attempted to supply her vital medication via intermediaries. But they didn’t succeed and French authorities have since declared her dead. Her body has not yet been recovered.

We arrive at a bougainvillea-framed beachside villa and meet Bernard Benedictaponda, the cook and houseboy, who agrees to take us to Dedieu’s banda next door. 

The abandoned rustic banda is located right by the water and it’s closed by bamboo blinds secured with rope. As Mohammed and Bernard chat under the shade of a tree, I start snapping photographs of the exterior.

I notice the rope at the doorway is not very securely tied and so I slip inside the hut as quickly and imperceptibly as possible.

I'm not a professional photographer and I’m quite lousy with a camera. What’s more, I want to do this quickly before I invite any trouble and get kicked out. So, I’m really not registering details as I work my way through the open-plan banda, snapping photographs as I move down a corridor, to the living room area, to her bedroom.

That’s when I pause, my breath constricted, for the first time.

Dedieu’s bedroom has two little bookshelves lined with books. This is – or was - obviously the bedroom of a bibliophile. I love books. They are my life. I suddenly feel a sense of proximity, an intimacy, I guess, with a woman I’ve never met.

A co-founder of MLF (Mouvement de libération des femmes), a leading French women’s rights group, Dedieu was a feminist from a generation I much admire. These were the women who really fought the good fight in the 1960s for women of my generation. They’re the grand old girls.

Hands clammy, I move on to a sort of study area, where among the books piled on a table I noticed Jonathan Franzen’s book, “Freedom”. It’s the French edition, but it has the same title as the original English, which came out just last year. The French edition has to be very new. She was just here. This had to be one of her latest books, which she probably bought on her last trip to France.

But I don’t have too much time for reflection. I snap my pic and then slip past the bamboo blinds and out into the Manda sunshine.

The next day, I’m in the empty waiting lounge at the Manda airstrip, waiting to catch the flight back to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. It’s a good time to start writing my piece.


Before I begin, I check out my photographs.

That’s when I notice things I hadn’t seen while I was in the hut. Like the book used to prop up that bed post. It looks like a Gallimard book. Gallimard is a leading French publishing house and their books have a characteristic look. I never noticed that before. For some reason that book propping up her bed moves me. Dedieu had such a horrible death. No one deserves to die that way. Rest in peace, Marie Dedieu, you led a full, intellectually fulfilling life.

Mohammed must have breathed a sigh of relief as the tiny, Nairobi-bound plane took off from Lamu. He didn’t lose this mzungu. I hope all the wazungu and the non-wazungu in captivity get home safely.

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I don't think you should be taking photographs in a house that doesn't belong to you. Its private, personal property and you should be ashamed of such insensitive invasion.
Thanks for your personal perspective from Lamu and Manda, I enjoyed your piece. I have fond memories of the place from a few years ago, it seemed like such a great place to disappear to.
Thanks for sharing your blog. Yes, a third comment, one for the record -- the journo that King Leopold doused water on was the same journo who he called gov immigration officials on = c'est moi! It wasn't lost on me that his telling you these incidences was as means to bully and threaten you as well. If Lamu hoteliers - yes, Oof and the other wheezing one in Shela spent one cent (they've got lots) or one iota of time toward making the gov responsible or acknowledge their abyssal security history, David Tebbutt and Marie Dedieu may still be alive and Judith Tebbutt with us today.
Here's the link for piece, Pirates in Paradise, about the Lamu archipelago in Kenya tourist murders and kidnappings published in Newsweek magazine --
Gosh, did I get thrown out of Lamu? If so, then Oof! is a bigger meat head in denial than I had previously thought. :)) Here' the link to my Newsweek piece about the Kenya kidnappings and murders

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