Treasure hunters fuel vandalism of Lamu's historical tombs

One of the vandalised tombs found on Lamu Island. The National Museums of Kenya has decried vandalism of historical tombs and monuments on Lamu Island that has led to high maintenance and restoration costs.

Photo credit: Kalume Kazungu I Nation

The National Museums of Kenya has decried vandalism of historical tombs and monuments on Lamu Island that has led to high maintenance and restoration costs.

Lamu curator Mohammed Mwenje noted that expensive decorations such as Chinese porcelain plates that lay on the historic graves of prominent people were stolen and sold to treasure hunters.

Lamu is known for its centuries-old historic tombs, also known as ‘Tombs of Identity’, most of which have existed for between 200 and 400 years.

The tombs are key tourist attractions.

Among the tombs affected are those for Mwenye Mui Zahid Ngumi, which is more than 200 years old, in Langoni and Mwana Hadie Famau, which is about 300-400 years old, in Mkomani, Lamu Old Town.

Ngumi, who was the Lamu Old Town patron, is renowned for building the Lamu Fort between 1813 and 1821, while Famau is called the ‘Saint of Lamu’ due to the strong religious beliefs she portrayed in her lifetime.

Another renowned tomb is the 14th century Pillar Tomb in Gadeni, Lamu Old Town.

A majority of the tombs for prominent people were elaborately decorated by their families, mostly using expensive Chinese porcelain.

This was meant to also show how important an individual was in society.

“Most of the families who used to take care of these tombs have since moved on. The tombs can’t be traced to a particular lineage, meaning we don’t have people to take care of the graves on a regular basis. And this has worked to the advantage of the raiders to these tombs,” Mr Mwenje said.

Many historic tombs are also located in urban areas, which have seen a steady growth in population.

“We’re experiencing such challenges in Gadeni and Tchundwa villages, where isolated pillar tombs are under threat of encroachment.

Some have already been left with very confined spaces,” he said.

Waste disposal at historic tombs is another problem.

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