Dhow making business along Kenyan coast is still afloat despite modern corrosion but for how long?

This rich tradition of making Swahili dhows is normally passed down through the generations by elderly craftsmen, known locally as “fundis”.

For centuries, the Dhow has been used to transported people, food, construction materials and livestock along the Kenyan coastline.

The business of making dhows has remained afloat for years despite modern time’s turbulence that has seen more and more fishermen abandoning the traditional dhow for the modern dhow made of synthetic fibres.

So unique is the craft that CNN inside Africa recently explored the traditions of the Dhow sailboat, its unique cultural aspect and survival in the face of mounting pressure from modern dhows and plastic pollution in its latest episode.

Ali Sekander, is a fundi at the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu and has been making Dhows his entire working life.

“I’ve grown up in an industrial family. We are all Dhow builders, furniture makers, sailors and farmers. My entire family and all of our forefathers have lived on this island for seven to eight centuries.” He said.

Despite modernisation, many people still rely on the traditional Dhow because of its many advantages over modern dhows.

Athman,a local fisherman who sails a Dhow every day for his fishing expeditions says he prefers the traditional dhow.

“The advantage of having a Dhow is that you can pull in shallow water. You only need one person to sail a small Dhow but a big Dhow is very heavy; you have to be strong or have two to five people to pull it... I like to have a small Dhow to fish; you can go anywhere and then follow the wind back.”

So intricate is dhow to Swahili culture that dhow racing is one of the most popular attractions during Lamu cultural festival held every year.

However, all is not smooth sailing at this picturesque quiet town, the wooden Dhow-building industry is in decline, with more and more fishermen favouring boats made from synthetic fibres.

In addition, Dhow carpentry skills aren’t being passed down the generations as they once were.

Mohammad, a Dhow builder originally from Somalia, says that he struggles to interest his children in his trade:

“[Dhow-building] is a very difficult job. Between this job and a job that’s better paid, I can’t argue with my children’s decisions. Everyone has their choice to make, don’t they?”

Deforestation, coupled with restrictions on tree harvesting and cutting, has also seen the primary raw material used in dhow making rapidly decline, leaving many fundis wondering how long their business can remain afloat.

Dhow makers have been forced to source their materials from places as far away as Mozambique and southern Sudan.

“Soon Dhow-building will be wiped out. Sometimes we have to import wood from two countries. So we’ve been coming up with ways [in which] we can retain our Dhow-building skills. We need to find another alternative.”

On top of that fishermen have had  to deal with plastic pollutions which is increasingly chocking the Indian Ocean and affecting the quality of fish stocks.

Sekander has experienced the problem of plastic waste first-hand which inspired him to take action to raise more awareness of the plastic menace and reclaim the ocean.

“I’ve seen how much plastic we catch in our nets when we go fishing.”

“Ben Morrison, a friend of mine from the U.K., was looking for someone to help him build his vision - a Dhow made from recycled plastic. We’re going to make a big Dhow, around 60 feet long, and we’re aiming to sail this Dhow from Lamu to Cape Town in South Africa… I think all of us were very ambitious and optimistic!”

Local and international conservationist have also joined the fight and are fighting back to reclaim the ocean.

Despite possessing years of experience building dhows, designing and constructing the recycled plastic Dhow was not easy and involved much trial and error and learning on the job.

However where there is will there is a way and so after enlisting the help of conservationists and artists, the team soon discovered the perfect waste plastic for Dhow-making; flip flops.

So perfect, in fact, that the team have named the boat ‘The Flip-Floppi’.

“We started doing what we thought was best. We mixed plastic with a little bit of sand, which would traditionally make it very strong but the weight became a bit of an issue. the biggest challenge of building something like the Flip-Floppi was that we had to go back to the drawing board to try to find new ways of doing things.” Sam Garuya, an enterprising conservationist who is part of the project said.

In order to raise the maximum awareness the builders want the final product to really stand out.

“The Dhow will be colourful and it will look gorgeous. It’s something that we want people to see. This flip flop expedition will reach far and beyond.” Artist Benson Gitare added.

Sekander and his team are aiming to finish the project by January 2018 and look forward to sending their message across the oceans.

“We are human beings. We are all the same type of creature and yet we are destroying the world. We have to connect with people, so the message is: We have to be in a Dhow!” Sekander said.

“My expectations of the flip flop project is global awareness of the ocean plastic pollution issue.” Garuya added.

Lamu Festivals

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