What does the wall dance?

I just returned from Kenya, where I attended a workshop at the British Institute in Eastern Africa called ‘Building the City: Planning, Participation and Practice in East Africa,’ and visited Lamu again for a couple of days to see what was going on on the LAPSSET Port site. On the first day I was in Lamu I was fortunate to be taken by boat to the port site by Mohamed Athman, co-ordinator of Save Lamu, with Michele Vollaro, a reporter for the Italian group Internationalia. We disembarked through a 50m wide clearing in the mangrove forest cut for the launch of the LAPSSET project in 2012 and where dredging will begin in June for the construction of the first three berths.

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In the distance, we could see a new glazed building with soaring roof overhangs over the tops of the fallen mangroves.

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A short walk took us to the foundation stone that was laid at the launch.

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Nearby were  three rather forlorn looking trees that were planted on the occasion, one for Kenya, one for South Sudan and one for Ethiopia, the three signatories to the project. Mohamed told us that tree planting is a Kenyan ‘thing’ that usually marks official events.

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A short distance away, we came to the boundary wall of LAPSSET Phase 1.

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Made of blocks of coral the size of concrete blocks, laid between reinforced concrete posts, this 3 metre high wall performs a number of things.The tender to build it was awarded to Kenya’s National Youth Service. This is a volunteer youth organisation that provides two years of vocational training prior to enrolment at university or entry into the civil service. It was established in 1964 to “train youths in tasks of national importance, including service in the armed forces, national reconstruction programmes and disaster response” and, in July 2013, the Kenyan Senate voted to make it compulsory for all high school graduates. This was seen as a way of addressing questions of national security, a low sense of patriotism amongst Kenya’s youth, idleness and criminality (http://sabahionline.com/en_GB/articles/hoa/articles/features/2013/07/23/feature-02).

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This banal, rather shoddily constructed wall in the middle of nowhere then, is participating in a wider choreography of national security, patriotism and morality. Its very construction – arduous, sun drenched manual labour; boring, repetitious, heavy work; its height, solidity, length, remoteness – these authoritatively perform the values Kenya aspires to instil in its young people. The wall is more than just a piece of infrastructure; it is a dance of discipline, national security and social responsibility.

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At the same time however, it is performing other less noble things: hostility, violence, exclusion. The land it encloses was seized without compensation and subsistence farmers have been incised from it; those who live alongside its boundary have been handed eviction notices.

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Its very path performs this asymmetrical violence, dividing and disrupting, cutting an authoritative, inconvertable incision into the landscape.

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Once complete, not even the chickens that now breach its boundary will be able to ignore its proprieties.

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Inside the wall’s perimeter, we come across the half fallen down construction boards for the port administration building, replete with a fading rendering of the new building surrounded by fully grown palm trees and a car park.

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This will be the port’s centre piece. It is, as one of my friends says, yet another wonderful example of sustainable architecture in Africa – blue glass façade, corrugated roof sheeting, acres of parking.

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I will give it to the architects though, the windows do open, a central atrium will facilitate air circulation and its crenellated façade, Moorish arches and coral finish make some attempt to reference Lamu style. But, strangely, the prominent roof overhangs at either end of the facade atop the stairwells, do not offer shaded vantage points to look out over the landscape, as I had hoped, but merely house water tanks and other services.

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The other almost completed building is the port security building. It is bristling with wires and cables and security locks.

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It is a Sunday though, so workers are lolling around in the heat, playing board games, washing clothes, cooking lunch.

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We walk around unimpeded. Back in Lamu, Michele and I discuss how strange that was. The one thing the wall did not perform at all was deterrability; we came and went as we pleased. But then, it had other, more important a-symmetries to perform.

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One response to “What does the wall dance?

  1. am so proud of this development in Kenya. despite the negative impression this article give, it sure will change the lives of kenyans. for your imformation, the landowners were compensated. the 45 whose compensation is pending, had problems with their account numbers.

    Like

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