Mombasa

Hamila was waiting for me the next morning at the coffee shop we had visited the day before, which was a convenient jumping off point for “old town” Mombasa. The city leaders in Mombasa made an interesting decree some years ago – “Old Town” buildings would be painted yellow, and “modern” buildings would be painted blue and white to make things easier for tourists. Trust me, the streets are still pretty tangled.

The Jahazi Coffee House where we met didn’t give any history of the building itself, but instead wanted to communicate their mission. They are located on Main Street (“Nadia Kuu Road” locally) in Old Town. The building is intended to reflect the local style, foods, and ambiance of the area, and the culture that celebrates a local meeting place of neighbors, a KiSwahili experience.

Jahazi Coffee House is also part of a local NGO called “Darul-Salaam,” meaning “House of Peace” in Arabic. It offers positive influence and input for the youth and their families of Old Town. They provide a forum for life issues, and a place to learn arts and positive community activities.

I only had coffee with Hamila, so I can’t speak to the functions of Jahazi, but it’s easy to see why they would feel the need to help the area. It’s not unique to Old Town or Mombasa or even to Kenya, but it doesn’t take long for a visitor to see that there is a decided lack of opportunity throughout Africa. Too many, especially young men, are idle during the day because they lack good education for better jobs, and they lack even sufficient numbers of unskilled jobs that would allow for stable income.

Mombasa is an ancient city, founded around 900 AD. The name comes from the Arabic, Manbasa, but the Kiswahili name is “Kisiwa Cha Mvita,” or “Island of War,” because of the frequent changes of ownership during Mombasa’s history.

The original inhabitants were the Bantu people. History moved more slowly in ancient times – the Bantu were visited first by the Jordanians in the 6th century, the Persians in the 9th century, followed by Arab traders, especially the Omani.

Trade made Mombasa an important city. Vasco de Gama explored here in the 15th century, but the Portuguese arrived in force in 1593, building Fort Jesus (see “Fort Jesus, Mombasa” post.)

Fast forward through the exchange of possession among the Omani, the Portuguese, and a couple of interlopers such as the Mazruis, to the agreement in 1886 between Britain and Germany that, with typical European arrogance, assigned Kenya and Uganda to Britain, and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to Germany. The British East Africa Company set up headquarters in Mombasa in 1888. Colonization of Kenya began in earnest, and the British dominance lasted until 1963, when Kenya became an independent nation.

The British railroad company managed by Cecil John Rhodes built a railroad from Uganda to Mombasa, Kenya, that was completed in 1901. It was only recently replaced by the new railroad that I rode on. The British railroad construction was plagued by “man-eating lions,” which were a real problem, killing about two dozen workers before hunters were hired to eliminate them. The incidents were memorialized in several places, one of them being this bas relief mural at a crocodile farm near Nairobi.

In reality, many more workers died of malaria during the two years of construction, but malaria did not capture the public imagination in the same way as man-eating lions.

Being an ancient city, many of the “old town” buildings, while still standing, have been long since re-purposed, often several times.

This is the site of the Portuguese Church of Misericordia. It was later converted into a cow shed. The site may also mark the burial place of Lieutenant Reitz of the Portuguese Royal Navy, although oral tradition places the burial site further along the road. The reason for interest is that the oral tradition also says, “The ghost of a young man in short trousers is said to appear here, and it is rumored that a cross marks a grave in this house within a locked room.”

We don’t know if The White House is called that because of the color or because it was the first American Consulate in Mombasa.

The building was built in the late 1700s by Esmaliji Jeevanjee, a Bohra Indian. It was rented to the Church Missionary Society between 1893 – 1904 as a “Ladies House” for unmarried lady missionaries or nuns. By 1909, the building was being used by an American firm called Arnold Chehney that traded ivory. It was after this, in 1915, that it became the first American consulate in Kenya, and served until 1918.

The original door, a “fine carved door,” has been removed, and the current door and window are carved in a Zanzibar style with “wealthy vegetal designs.” The designs are on the transom above the door, whereas the door itself is a typical Omani style.

In 1899, the post office opened, making it possible for the Indians working on the railroad to send letters and money home to their families. There was also a trolley terminal here. The balconies are very typical of Mombasa architecture.

The post office was transferred to Treasury Square in 1941. The building had been used as an immigration office during WWI. It is also a good example of Mombasa architecture, with the covered balconies on the front and back sides, supported by wooden brackets. The elevation is adorned with arch doors and windows, and embellished with rich plaster work, or it was. All of the Old Town buildings have been through hard times, it seems.

The Africa Hotel opened in 1901, with twelve bedrooms that looked over the sea. Whether it had any real success or not is unclear from the sign. Apparently, a guest in 1904 complained that “there was a smell of rancid ghee, curry, earth closets, decaying fish, and unwashed humanity.” The sign states reassuringly, “There were two other hotels in Mombasa at this time, The Grand and The Cecil.” Afterward, it became a grocery and tailoring business, and prospered as there were several consulates nearby. Again, there are the balconies and carved brackets.

There were a couple of similar, but unidentified, buildings near by:

We passed an old, but not ancient, mosque on our way from Old Town to more modern Mombasa. The minaret is distinctive, and the style has a name, but I haven’t been able to find it yet.

Here’s an exposed wall. Many of the buildings in Old Town, like Fort Jesus, were made of blocks carved from the coral reefs around the shore, then plastered over. Below are also modern decorations (not made of coral!) as we approach modern Mombasa.

Squeezing juice from sugar cane. Note that the building is white and blue now.

Halima and her mother, who is selling some of her produce at the market:

Vendors set up wherever there is room. A man brings in more jugs for water or cooking oil. Most jugs I saw for water were yellow, but later I saw a make-shift funnel that seemed like they were filling the jugs with water rather than oil. In Africa, many rural areas are without running water, and hauling water is a daily task.

Filling jugs, looking at beans, shopping, tomatoes and beets, grains and coconuts!

The building on the left is one of the market buildings. While many vendors were outside along the streets and alleys, the buildings housed larger vendors, with separate buildings for produce (vegetables, grains, spices, and others,) fish and shellfish, and meat. Kenyans eat beef, chicken, goat, and lamb most commonly. Other poultry was present – ducks, mostly – but I didn’t see domestic pigs anywhere in Africa, only bush pigs and warthogs.

Lastly, we went to meet a friend of Halima’s at a local Hindu temple. I had never been in a Hindu temple, so it was interesting, but because I know so little about Hindu religion, it was also confusing. I did, however, get the message that if I have ever stepped on an insect, I am in deep trouble. I’m not sure where I go from there, but maybe when I get to India, I can learn. In the meantime, it’s a good thing I’m Episcopalian.

The artwork, however, is beautiful and interesting, so I look forward to the day when I will understand better.

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