Hey all. Following our trip to Amboseli we drove right to Mombasa. There is a lot to be said about this city, here’s what two SLU students thought about our wonderful few days there.
Mombasa has historically been a hub for interaction between Arabs, Persians, Indians, Europeans as well as native populations within Kenya. The Mjikenda are bantu and are the largest local ethnic group in the Coastal region of Kenya, they are accompanied by the Pokomo. Swahili people and inland groups that have migrated to the coast overtime also make up the diverse peoples of coastal Kenya.
The first Omani Arabs arrived on the coast of Kenya in the 12th century. Kiswahili (the Swahili language) eventually became the way of communication between local Bantu peoples and the Omani traders and settlers. Indian and Chinese peoples also made contact on the coast of Kenya early on. In the late 15th century the Portugese, lead by Vasco De Gama arrived with aims to take over trade from the Omanis. Since then kiswahili has adapted to include Portugese words and the Swahili culture draws from local Kenyan, Arab, Portuguese, Indian and Brithish culture. Turkish forces briefly took control of the coast from Omani peoples before the arrival of the British. However, the UK did not assume power over the coast until the creation of the East African protectorate in 1895 due to the power and integration of wealthy Omani Families in the region.
Throughout history Swahili people have seen themselves as distinct and different from the local native Africans of Kenya, often viewing themselves as more educated, powerful and civilized. This distinction comes from the involvement of Arabs in the slave trade and domestic enslavement of African peoples. As a result there is an economic structure on the coast that often benefits descendants of wealthy Arab families. During the colonial period, the coastal region was often excluded from development that was centered in the white highlands. Swahili people were further isolated by the tendency toward Muslim education and resistance to westernized, Christain education.
Today the coastal region is still isolated politically and socially from inland Kenya. A history of ethnicity based politics has lead to a lack of employment opportunities and educational institutions on the coast and stigmas around the Muslim religion has lead to danger and fear for Swahili people who leave the coast. Recently the central government moved the port of Mombasa from Mombasa to Lamu and the processing of items imported to an inland port, leaving the people of Mombasa without transport and processing jobs. With this move the tourism industry and specifically sex tourism has become a back bone in Mombasa’s economy.
Our time in Mombasa was one of experiential education. While it may have been the most beautiful place ever to many, there was a lot of education. During the five days we spent there we learned much about the city. That includes history, religion, and social aspects of everyday life. We went through tours, listened and discussed during guest panels, and had an amazing time.
Our first official day in Mombasa was quite the time. We took a drive over to Old Town, where we began the day with a visit to Fort Jesus. The Fort was built in the 1590s by the Portuguese, but was later taken over by the Omani Arabs. There was an interesting mix of cultural architecture inside the fort, which adds to its charm. The combination of our excellent tour guide, and the museum inside of the fort provided for a very educational and fun experience. After that our guides took us on a tour of the city. We learned more about the history of the city until we were led to the markets. Many students bought clothing, spices, and fresh coconut. Our guides taught us the ins and outs of the market, such as where to find “The greatest spice shop in Mombasa ”,Sunshine Spice co. This was the perfect introduction to our stay in Mombasa. We got to learn about the vast history of the city, as well as a taste of market life, and a taste of coconut!
Our second day in Mombasa started off with a documentary, followed by a visit to HAKI Africa. HAKI is an NGO based in Mombasa, but provides coverage to all of Africa. HAKI provides a safe space and resource to those abused or hurt by others or the law as well as provides information to citizens on their rights and ways to keep safe. HAKI wants to create trust with the citizens and the police, as there is love lost between the people and the police. They also participate and organize rallies and protests, to stand up against injustice in their community. After our visit to HAKI we went to lunch, and after lunch we visited a nearby Mosque, the Mandhry Mosque to be exact. The Mandhry Mosque is the oldest mosque in Mombasa, the elegant place of worship was a highlight to many. Inside we saw old artifacts built into the mosque that have been around since its founding in 1570. Many of us never set foot in a mosque so it provided a wonderful experience. We talked to members of the mosque about what Islam truely is, and why there is a stigma around it not only in their community, but a round the world. It was an amazing experience for many.
During our final day of activities we started the day with another educational documentary, followed by discussion in the morning. After that we went back into the city to talk to an organization called CHEC, which stands for coast hostess empowering community. The organization works with sex workers, providing them information and resourses on how to stay safe as well as access healhtcare and health resources, such as: family planning, STI treatment, mental health services, and many more. This was followed by a conversation and information session of Muslim mothers in the area. They taught us about the struggles that their families go through, due to islamophobia. These conversations were very informational and provided many students with new outlooks on serious issues. It was the perfect finale to our time in the city of Mombasa.
The first thing I noticed when arriving in Mombasa was how there was no desert sand and dust compared to Amboseli. The second thing I noticed was the absolute beauty of this amazing city, and the third thing I noticed was the heat. Never in my life have I been to a place as hot as Mombasa, but never in my life have I been to a place as beautiful as it. The inherent beauty wasn’t the only thing that captivated me in this city. The sheer difference in the speed of daily life compared to Nairobi, was surprising. Mombasa is the only city I’ve been to that is seemingly relaxed. It’s missing the hustle and bustle of bigger cities, which is an amazing thing. The city seems to work together which eliminates fast paced daily life many can struggle with. One of the coolest things I saw on the streets of Mombasa was a trade cart. The cart had different household appliances that one could trade for if they gave a piece of clothing. It was kind of like “leave a penny, take a penny”, but it had an actual purpose. Another thing I loved about the city was the history.
Fort Jesus was an amazing experience, being able to touch and stand in a place that’s been around since the 1590s is incredible. I think the tour of the fort was a great opening so that we could understand the sheer history of the city. When exploring Old Town the history of it all was clearer than the fort, everything kept its history from way back when. This is clear after looking at one of the first establishments we saw, a hotel. The Africa hotel is not only the oldest hotel in Mombasa, but the oldest in all of Kenya and it stands to this day. The history and culture that has been preserved in Mombasa is both breathtaking and insanely impressive.
I think the most influential thing learned in my time in Mombasa was learning about the stigma around Muslims. Mombasa and the coast are some of the only areas in Kenya with large populations of Muslims. In a Christain dominated country there is a large stigma against Muslims, this is perpetrated by portrayal in the media, as well as targeting by the government. We had a meeting with a trio of Muslim mothers who talked about the hardships they face, as well as the hardships their children face. When visiting the oldest mosque in Mombasa, we were able to further understand Islam. We were taught about the religion, were able to observe prayer, and have a discussion with the head of the mosque to further understand these issues. Our time in paradise was one of wonder and education, and something I wouldn’t trade for the world.
On our journey from Amboseli to Mombasa, it became very apparent to me that we were headed somewhere new and unlike anywhere we had explored before. The air coming through our bus windows became hotter and thicker, the earth outside became a deep burnt orange color and the style of bomas, or homesteads that we passed changed as well. We passed Baobab trees and pineapple farms and then big truck stops and towns with Mosques announcing prayer times to passersby. I knew we had arrived when I saw white sand out my window peeking out from low lying tropical plants. The beautiful resort that we stayed in faced the Indian ocean and the beach grew and shrank each day with the tides as we enjoyed swimming in the bath like water.
Throughout our time in Mombasa we learned a lot about how the coast varies from the rest of the country. The Swahili culture, Arab influence and large population of Muslim people sets the coastal region aside in special ways. Old Town, the oldest part of Mombasa is a reminder of all of the people who have come to the Kenyan coast to trade throughout history. The small streets and yellow buildings with intricate woodwork and balconies abound made me smile. Nairobi has no streets like this, I thought, Nairobi is new and fast paced and grey and here is a romantic city surrounded by water. On our first day after the tour of the ancient Portuguese Fort Jesus we went to a spice market and tasted and smelled the mingling of Kenyan, Indian and Arab flavors. At lunch we tasted spiced Swahili Coffee in tiny painted cups.
I learned quickly though that Mombasa and the Swahili people that are found there are not only different due to culture but due to the way they are treated, perceived and included politically. There are less resources allocated to the coast by the central government, such as schools, employment opportunities and investments. The proximity of the coastal county to Somalia has led to conflict between Police and the Muslim community and a stigmatization of Islam in Kenya as a whole. The mothers that we talked to about raising children in Mombasa expressed fear of discrimination and violence against their kids and potential abduction by the police. I was saddened and surprised when we entered the oldest Mosque in Mombasa and the Imam there felt the need to tell us, “See, there are no AKA 47s here”.
A lot of times this semester it feels like we are living two lives, the happy go lucky tourists who swim and stroll the streets and shop and go on booze cruises and the students who are passionate and thoughtful and concerned with the political and social issues facing the places we visit. I have said it many times, Mombasa feels like the most romantic place on earth, but is that only because I had the pleasure of being a visitor? Mombasa just like Nairobi is home to informal settlements and traffic jams and political unrest that is exacerbated by ethnic tensions and the war on terror. However, unlike Nairobi, Mombasa has the ocean and the influence of a history of world trade and that creates a truly magical tourism location. I am very glad to have the privilege of living both lives and seeing Mombasa through many different eyes.