I had been to Mombasa before – a very long time before – but had fled after I wandered into a weed and alcohol evening at the beach bar of the hotel where I was staying on Diani Beach, and was shortly thereafter pursued up a flower-bedecked path to my cottage by a staggering, drunken idiot mumbling incoherently in my wake. This time around things were considerably tamer, at least for me, although in Mombasa’s Old Town young men were smoking dope openly on the street and if you didn’t know it, you could smell it a long way off. Marijuana is cheap and youngsters barely into their teens were rolling and lighting up. Although the atmosphere, unlike an alcohol-addled one, is not menacing, I am not sure it’s going to do much for Mombasa’s efforts to have the Old City declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The oldest building in Mombasa is Fort Jesus which was not even there when Ibn Battuta landed on its shores in 1331. Built by the Portuguese in 1596, it changed hands nine times over the next three centuries. In 1631 the entire Portuguese community in Mombasa was wiped out by Youssef Ibn Hasan, who managed to hold the fort for only a year before he in turn was murdered. In 1696 the Omanis attacked and besieged the fort for 33 months. There then began an internecine feud between the Omani Busaid Sultans of Zanzibar and the Omani Mazrui family, with the latter prevailing in Mombasa until 1837 when it finally fell under the domination of Zanzibar. In 1887 the Sultan leased Mombasa to the British East African Company where like Zanzibar itself, Mombasa became a British Protectorate under the Sultan’s authority, and headquarters of the British colonial administration until 1907 when it was moved to Nairobi. Kenya became independent in 1963 whereupon sultanates, protectorates and foreign governors were consigned to the annals of history and the repertoires of tour guides. An atmospheric overgrown cemetery near Fort Jesus contains the remains of generations of the Mazrui family in crumbling yet grand mausolea and fragmenting moss-encrusted grave markers, obstinate reminder of the turbulent history of this old Swahili settlement.
Beautifully-carved door inside Fort Jesus
I had an excellent guide in Mombasa called Suleiman who not only guided me through Fort Jesus but the Old Town. A guide is necessary unless you have unlimited time and patience, as the quickest way through the town is through the narrow back alleys and if, unlike Suleiman, you have not grown up here you will get lost. This part of the Old Town is not always pretty – like many 'ungentrified' inner cities, the poorest people live here and have neither the means nor the wherewithal to do what has to be done to prevent the houses from falling into further dilapidation or to repair backed-up drains, sewage systems, effect trash collection etc. The areas which have been renovated however display graceful curving corbels holding up carved wooden and latticed balconies, and arched, square or paneled wood doors denoting Persian, Arab or Gujerati influence. One unique traditional and contemporary Swahili architectural feature is the baraza, a low stone bench attached to the wall outside a house or inside a courtyard where the men sit and while away the day - the ends have a raised cushion effect called jokingly a 'Swahili pillow'.
I went along to Mombasa’s Old Town Conservation Office (MOTCO) in the renovated Leven House to see what was being done to save what was left. Leven House itself was in a perilous state of decay when renovation began in 2002; named after a British ship sent to patrol the waters off the coast in anti-slaving measures in 1824, missionaries, consuls and explorers stayed here before the house became a boys’ school and the headquarters of a shipping company before the National Museums of Kenya took it over in 1997. The small staff of MOTCO has mapped out the entire Old Town and a conservation order is now in place on all remaining structures – training is also being conducted in local crafts such as woodcarving, masonry and copper-smithing before they are forgotten, and also to give gainful employment to the people of Old Town. But the conservationists face the same problem of funding as all such worthy ventures, and in the meantime it is a struggle to maintain let alone preserve.
In 1331 Ibn Battuta wrote of Mombasa; "It has no mainland territory, and its trees are the banana, the lemon and the citron. Its people have a fruit which they call jammun, resembing an olive and with a stone like its stone. Their food consists mostly of bananas and fish. They are Shafi'ites in rite, pious, honourable, and upright, and their mosques are of wood, admirably constructed."
Mombasa today is more than just an island and although the old dhow traffic has fallen away, its new container port, Kilindini, is the second largest port on the continent after that of Durban in South Africa. It is also remarkable that mosques were then built of wood, because up and down the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania are dozens of ruined Swahili towns dating principally from the 14th to the 17th centuries, many of which have the remains of sturdily-built mosques of coral rag. In many cases even the roofs were built of limestone. It is likely that much of the housing was built of wood which would long since have disappeared, but there are also significant remains of stone-built residences. Ibn Battuta goes on to remark,
"At each of the gates of the mosques there are one or two wells and they draw up water from them in a wooden vessel, into which has been fixed a thin stick of the length of one cubit.......and at its gate there is a piece of thick matting on which he rubs his feet. If one intends to make an ablution, he holds the vessel between his thighs, pours water on his hands and performs the ritual washings. All the people walk with bare feet."
This is an interesting observation because from Jumba La Mtwana to Lamu, outside ruined mosques you can see the remains of one or two wells with conduits leading to cisterns where ritual ablutions took place before entering. Between the cisterns and the entrance to the mosque 'rubbing stones' are found, where people rubbed their feet dry before entering. These 'bosses' were made of coral; some from porites or fine-grained coral, others from favites or medium grain coral, or platygyra, coarse grained 'brain' coral. They also served the function of softening the skin on the soles of the feet after washing - important since the people did indeed go barefoot and in some of the more remote areas of the coast, still do. Water was never a plentiful commodity and in performing ablutions, a ladle made of a dried coconut shell attached to a stick was used to pour water on to the appropriate parts of the body. This utensil was also used in houses for bathing. Likewise the vessel used to collect water from the well called a kichapa, is described accurately by our seasoned observer, and examples can be seen in ethnographic museums throughout Kenya.
Ruined 'Mosque by the Sea' at Jumba La Mtwana, just north of Mombasa.