Colonial History and Swahili Traditions in a Diverse Kenyan Metropolis
Several strands of Kenya’s past meet at Mombasa’s Fort Jesus junction. On one side is the entrance to the medieval Arab town, and on the other the colonial-style members-only Mombasa Club. Oddly, the statue in the traffic island here immortalises not some great historic Kenyan figure, but the local tradition of roadside coffee or kahawa, with a giant golden coffee pot.
Mombasa was settled by the Swahili people nearly 2,000 years ago, but its customs have been shaped by the monsoon winds that brought maritime traders from near and far. Kenya’s second-largest city after Nairobi bears the cosmopolitan influence of its Bantu, Arab, Indian, Persian, Portuguese, and British inhabitants. Today, people are still drawn to Mombasa from all over the world, for its bounteous beaches, the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and its access to some of the world’s best national parks teeming with wildlife.
I rendezvous with Taibali Hamzali, an architect with a yen for heritage conservation, who has been working towards preserving the buildings and ethos of old Mombasa. A friend of a friend, Taibali grew up in the Old Town and couldn’t be a better guide to its intimate alleyways. We convene at Fort Jesus, a 16th-century citadel and a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by the Portuguese and a popular meeting point for walking tours. The Old Town Tourist Guides Association, with its reliable registered guides is located here.
A map of the Old Town at the entrance to Ndia Kuu, or Main Street, indicates various walking routes. I marvel at the dainty single-storey houses with balconies and balustrades, ornately carved doors, and even some art deco architecture. The scene is reminiscent of small-town colonial India. Taibali tells me that indeed this waterfront settlement is a rich amalgam of the Arab-Omani, Indian, and British cultures that touched these shores, and left their mark on the country. Though mostly privately owned, the residential buildings are bound by heritage conservation laws. Still, some have been sold to unscrupulous builders and demolished. I am awed by the fretwork balconies and the teak doors with brass studs. Adorned with inscriptions of Koranic calligraphy and floral vines, these were the handiwork of the Kutchi craftsmen who were early immigrants from India.
Meandering through lanes flanked by heritage homes, we come across the 16th-century Mandhry Mosque, believed to be the oldest mosque still in use in the city. Its obelisk-like minaret once served as a beacon to medieval Arab dhows, guiding them into the Old Port. “Old Town Mombasa grew as an Islamic trading post,” says Taibali, “and by the 1900s, finely-crafted stone buildings had been constructed along the main streets.”
The Old Post Office was constructed in 1899, in the British colonial style of arched windows and rich plasterwork decoration. It is from here that Indian indentured labourers sent news and money to their families. The post office is at Government Square, one of Old Town’s few open spaces and the perfect vantage from which to watch boats dotting the harbour. According to a plaque, such “small coastal trading vessels” sailed up and down Africa for thousands of years. I am intrigued by an unmarked door on a periphery wall abutting the ocean and Taibali reveals a darker side to the old port’s history: It was a departure point for slaves being sent to Zanzibar, East Africa’s main slave market.
Further north stands majestic Leven House, seat of the erstwhile British colonial administration, where missionaries such as Johann Ludwig Krapf, and 19th-century explorers John Speke and Richard Burton once stayed. Named after a British ship which ran anti-slaving patrols off the coast of the city, the renovated building now houses the Mombasa Old Town Conservation Office.
Outside, in the narrow lanes, Swahili women in loose floor-length buibui gowns or boldly floral patterned khangas (sarongs) and men wearing kikois (lungis) and kanzus (long white tunics) sell souvenirs to tourists. Most of the buildings have curio shops on the ground floor. Though kitschy, many of these shops or dukas have good local handicrafts and items such as brass coffee pots.
I mull over my day while sipping kahawa by a painted glass window in the Jahazi Coffee House. More than a café, Jahazi is a cultural meeting ground. Like other words in Swahili which have been borrowed from Persian, Arabic, or Hindustani, jahaz is a familiar term meaning ship. With its carved wooden benches and tables from Lamu, Persian carpets and settees, it offers the ideal setting from which to watch the world go by. Make sure you get a plate of crisp Swahili samosas and kahawa, the signature spice and ginger-laced coffee. I imagine a traditional coffee seller with his trademark brass coffee pot and brazier full of coals peddling the strong brew to the idlers unwinding by the ocean.
AN EVENING IN FORT JESUS
Amid coconut palms and almond trees, boys in red jerseys play football by the four-century-old Fort Jesus. Fought over by the Omani Arabs and the Portuguese—the latter aided by men from their colony of Goa—the fort eventually fell to the British. It stands testament to the violent history of Mombasa, once called the “island of war.” In the late 19th century, after the city became the headquarters of the East Africa Protectorate, the British took control of the place and transformed it into a prison and it retained that avatar up until 1958 when it was designated a national park. Kenya gained independence in 1963 and Fort Jesus finally became a protected national monument. It was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. I watch the ocean waves crash against its walls as the retreating sun freezes the moment into a perfect picture.
On day two, I head to 3, modern Mombasa’s top-rated attraction. An emerald oasis sprung out of the derelict landscape of a spent limestone quarry, the park was mooted four decades ago by Swiss naturalist Dr. Rene Haller as part of the Bamburi Cement Company’s philanthropic efforts. The 200 hectares include a modest game sanctuary which is home to giraffes, cape buffalo, elands, and hippopotamuses, most of which are orphans or have been rescued. Arrive early to comfortably walk through the park.
While it is possible to explore on your own, it’s not a bad idea to hire a guide if you want to manage your time more efficiently and still discover interesting things. One of the highlights of this park is the giraffe feeding. On cue, the tall animals amble from the thicket towards a spectator gallery. Visitors feed them food pellets provided by the park for a nominal charge, and are kissed by the lanky ungulates in turn.
BOMBOLULU AND AKAMBA
The best shopping experience in Mombasa is at Akamba Handicrafts, a co-operative of craftsmen from the Akamba tribe. The craftspeople work in tiny shacks behind the main shop and visitors can watch them carve intricate masks. The shop is chock-a-block with every conceivable type of Kenyan craft: ebony and rosewood masks, life-size sculptures of Maasai and Samburu warriors, soapstone curios, batiks of African landscapes, beadwork baskets and jewellery. (Off Port-Reitz Road, Changamwe; +254 41 3432241; www. akambahandicraftcoop.com.)
The non-profit Bombolulu Workshops and Cultural Centre runs a smaller set-up than Akamba, where physically challenged people make jewellery and woodcarvings. The cultural centre showcases folk dances and recreated homesteads of diverse Kenyan tribes. Some may find it a tad gimmicky, however, the organization’s social and charity work makes it worth a visit.
THE IRON SNAKE
The British East Africa Company inaugurated their ambitious plan to extend their power across Africa with the building of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in the 1890s. The unimaginable scale of this project led to monikers like the “Lunatic Express,” while the Africans called it the “Iron Snake” that crept across their land. Construction started in Mombasa and the line gradually extended across the country all the way to Kampala in Uganda. Mombasa due to its importance as a port was where the first station was built. It is also interesting that the large Indian diaspora in Mombasa and Kenya owes it existence to this railway as Indian labourers were brought in by the British to work on this line.
Though not on the tourist track, Mombasa’s old station is an interesting pit stop for the die-hard romantic who wants to hark back to the glory days of colonial rail travel. Charles Miller’s book The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism fills in the gaps where the old railway station falls short. For those looking for an immersive experience, a classic overnight sleeper train called the Jambo Kenya Deluxe runs from this station to Nairobi twice a week. The journey is a throwback to the style of the colonial elite as they travelled between the two cities.
North Mombasa is full of hotels sitting smack on the beach. In the evening, places like Sarova Whitesands, Serena, Florida Nightclub & Casino and Bamburi become prime nightlife destinations for live shows and parties. On a night out, try the Kenyan favourite, Tusker beer, or pick from a range of South African wines. A more romantic night out can be had on a Tamarind Dhow Dinner Cruise. The Tamarind Dhow is a floating restaurant with excellent seafood. Imagine the view from an immigrant or trader’s perspective centuries ago, and soak in the skyline, the modern melding with the old.