Against the backdrop of untainted white beaches on the Indian Ocean and the regal beach houses here that mix Omani, Indian, and Swahili architecture, live mortars arched across the Kenyan night skies. Unsuspecting tourists could have mistaken them for shooting stars. But they kept on coming. One after another, like fireworks.
This was another naval exercise by the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) conducted earlier this month, on the night of July 9, at the start of the tourist season on Lamu Island—and just weeks before Kenya’s elections.
The show of force went on for an hour, alternating between live mortars and storms of gunshots as a response to the brutal and indiscriminate beheadings and killings of innocent civilians by al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate in nearby Somalia, just a few days earlier.
Lamu and neighboring islands are a part of the Swahili Coast facing the Indian Ocean in eastern Kenya. Culturally, the region is distinct from the rest of Kenya, influenced by trade with the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, and even China. The population descends from five or six original families who have been on the islands for the past 400 years. Most practice Sunni Islam with centuries of Sufi spirituality, historically mainstream Kenyan Islam, with an emphasis on peaceful coexistence with all members of Kenyan society.
Modern-day Lamu County is comprised of two parts: Mainland and the Islands. The major islands are Shela, Lamu Island (“Lamu Town”), and Manda. Tourism, primarily from Europe, makes up most of the economy. A new port in Lamu Town is projected to surpass Mombasa as Kenya’s largest, which may not help tourism but ought to bring jobs and a much-needed lifeline to citizens affected by al Shabaab’s merciless attacks near the border.
The KDF Navy base where the live exercises took place is on Shela, which is a popular destination with tourists and long-term expatriates. Our time in Lamu was part of an original field study looking at how Muslim populations in the Horn of Africa themselves perceive the threat of al Shabaab.
To our surprise, local Swahili communities and tourist managers were notified of the exercise merely three hours ahead of time, leaving little time to know whether this was a live battle with al Shabaab militants or an exercise. The result was not only to heighten fear of the militants, but to deepen mistrust of the government, making the job of those trying to push back against extremism all the more difficult.