Nidhi Mahajan

2019 Hellman Fellow

Assistant Professor, Anthropology
UC Santa Cruz

Project Title: Contesting Visions of City and Nation: Land, and Sovereignty in Coastal Kenya

Project Description: Lamu, a historic port city in northern Kenya is being made anew. The Kenyan government has planned a multi-billion dollar megaport project, known as Lamu Port and Lamu-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor or LAPSETT in the area, touting the project as transformative for Lamu. While the government of Kenya markets this fantasy for the city’s future, its residents complain that since independence, the archipelago has been marginalized economically, with a high unemployment rate, a crumbling infrastructure, increased land grabbing, and insecurity. From their view, the LAPSETT project threatens to exacerbate these problems. Local civil society organizations such as Save Lamu have unequivocally opposed the project, and turned to the courts to place an injunction on the project. Alongside, a social movement known as the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) gathered strength across Lamu and the coast of Kenya, this movement arguing for the secession of the coast, predicated on the coast’s unique history and links to the Indian Ocean world. Against the backdrop of the LAPSETT project, I examine current tensions between Lamu residents and the central government. How and why are Swahili coast residents looking to the past to argue for the coast’s secession from Kenya? What is the relationship of the coast to the Kenyan state? What types of historical narratives are becoming popular on the coast and why? How are these imaginaries being harnessed to make claims to land and sovereignty? Based on archival and ethnographic research, I argue that these historical imaginaries are not just nostalgic for another time or place, but are actively harnessed to make claims to land and sovereignty in the present.