It was near nine o’clock in Shela, the sleepy village on the northeast beach of Lamu Island, when we ran out of soda for our brandies.
“Haraka! Haraka!” joked my friend Koi as someone went out barefoot to the nearest duka for more mixers. “It’s Kimaiyo Hour.”
‘Kimaiyo Hour’ is the curfew imposed by Kenya’s police inspector general David Kimaiyo in June after the Mpeketoni attacks that killed about 100 people on the mainland a few hours’ from Lamu Island.
The attacks, likely committed by Al-Shabaab with local assistance, continued for days, hitting Mpeketoni, Hindi, Poromoko, Gamba, Witu, and more.
I’d passed through some of those towns before the massacres. I remembered them for the chili-dusted mangoes and blocks of brown sugar that the Pokomo women sold by the roadside.
To stop the violence, Kimaiyo ordered a 6:30 pm to 6:00 am curfew in Lamu County. This Saturday, Kimaiyo extended the curfew for a fourth month.
Thankfully, in Shela, a sheltered hideaway far from the massacres, cops don’t bother you until late. The night of the brandy, for instance, Koi went home after ten, drinking with the boys even though his wife was leaving the next morning for a long work trip.
In Lamu town, down the beach from Shela, it’s different. There, police strictly enforce curfew at 9, a big loss for the few tourists who visit.
No more moonlit dhow rides to the floating bar by Manda Island, or nighttime wandering old town’s murky alleys.
No more practicing Kiamu with the wazee by the waterfront cannons, or watching the beach boys hit on the Swahili girls at the jetty (actually, that was already gone, the county installed streetlights so there are no dark places for couples to fool around).
But the worst is that the curfew kills the fishing industry, which was all the island economy had left since travel warnings sent tourism to its lowest point in memory.
Fish bite at night, but boats can’t launch until morning. They return in the afternoon, too late for buyers who need to deliver fresh yellowfin to southern hotels by lunch. There aren’t enough freezers on the Island to store fish overnight, so unsold catch just rots.
“There’s no economy now, and the curfew has caused it,” a 25-year-old fisherman named Mohamed told me.
The curfew is even harsher on the mainland, which unlike Lamu Island has suffered actual attacks.
When the authorities first enforced the curfew—a day before the announced date—people out past 6 pm were whipped with sticks into their homes, or humiliated.
An elderly Muslim woman told me soldiers forced her at gunpoint to kneel and crawl through a waste water ditch.
“We said, ‘we are your mothers,’ ” she recounted of the confrontation with security. “They said, ‘you are not our mothers, we left our mothers upcountry.’ ”
I met people who were abducted or beaten. Another was shot. One father told me his son’s been held for three months and tortured, his balls squeezed by interrogators, according to their lawyer.
I also heard rumors of abuses against the Boni—a hunter-gatherer community in the now garrisoned Boni Forest, but I can’t confirm. Police denied my request to visit the Forest—“due to the nature of the operation,” the public relations officer told me. I proposed to go anyway, but even my well-connected local fixer refused to risk it.
Despite all that, and to my surprise, most mainland residents I met supported the curfew. Compared to Al-Shabaab’s massacres, the security forces’ abuses are minimal.
It’s a choice I’m glad I don’t have to make.
Some residents laughed off the whole thing. One was a lighthearted mother who, as we sheltered in her living room during a rainstorm, casually explained that she miscarried after falling down while running from truncheon-swinging soldiers.
“We were told when we have to be inside, so you have no excuse if you’re out,” she said with no trace of resentment.
The rain lessened. We stood up to go. Before we left, the mother shared another reason for supporting the curfew, something I heard from a lot of coastal women.
Under curfew, she grinned, our men go home early and come to bed.
In Shela after dark, as us boys mixed brandy and soda, Koi’s wife must have been wishing. -JMP
Recipe: Lamu Old Fashioned
-1.5 tablespoons brown sugar, smuggled from Somalia
-1 teaspoon cardamom powder
-1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
-1.5 oz Viceroy Brandy, available at the Lamu police station, the island’s only liquor store
-1 thick sliced orange wedge
-4 oz Krest ginger ale
In a tumbler, muddle sugar, cardamom, cinnamon, and brandy. Squeeze in the orange juice then drop in the wedge. Stir. Fill rest of glass with ginger ale. Serve in your own home—Lamu is a Muslim society.
Variations: For a “Koi Fashioned” use Coca-Cola instead of Krest ginger ale.