Coral Rag Conservation in Kenya
Lamu, Kenya – October 2010
Lamu is Kenya’s oldest living town, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a port that has been in use for at least a thousand years. Most of Old Town’s traditional architecture dates from the 18th century, with houses built of coral rag stone and mangrove timber.
The house selected for this project is one of few remaining historic residences still owned and inhabited by a local family. It also retains many of its original features. Most historic houses have been sold to and remodeled by foreign investors, or abandoned by owners resulting in collapse.
The initial two-week training in October kicked off a 5-month project resulting in the complete repair and restoration of this Grade 1 listed coral rag house. The results reveal a great success story.
Planning was a three-year cooperative effort between AiP and the Lamu World Heritage Site and Conservation Office. The aim was to re-ignite the enthusiasm of the Swahili people of Lamu for the importance of saving their built heritage, and re-introduce appropriate methods of repair and maintenance for coral rag structures. This sparked the interest of National Geographic’s Genographic Legacy Fund, which provided generous funding for the program.
At the last minute, political unrest and the severe economic downturn prevented international participants from attending. Initial disappointment turned to resolve to show what the young artisans of Lamu could accomplish. Project organizers selected 12 young local trainees for classroom instruction and hands-on training in:
- the principles of coral rag construction and building compatible upward additions;
- timber window and door restoration, including decorative carving;
- slaking and preparation of lime for quality lime plaster and mortar; and
- façade maintenance to retain significant streetscape features.
Instructors and trainees found serious problems hidden behind the old plaster, with huge voids in the masonry due to rodent infestation. Trainees cut and placed new coral rag stone, leveled and replastered walls, restored wood features, and finished by re-applying historic decorative touches. The project goals were more than met with a completely restored house, and 12 new preservation craftsmen now trained and ready to work at other sites.
The goal of raising awareness of traditional building in Lamu was realized immediately, as trainees showed their new skills to visiting students who stopped by during the week to learn more about the construction and conservation processes.
Questionnaires completed by community members before and after the project showed a marked change in attitude had occurred – residents now have a more positive feeling toward using traditional techniques! This provides a lifeline to the coral rag houses lining the narrow streets of Lamu’s historic Old Town.
AiP received an expression of thanks from Mwenje Mohamed, our project partner and friend throughout the process:
I want to personally thank Ms Broeker for her trust in the idea and giving Us a chance to develop it. Her patience was remarkable and her technical input overwhelming, for this we must say Mungu Akubariki-God bless you.