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Mombasa

KENYA | Wednesday, 16 December 2009 | Views [702]

Last Thursday after the long-awaited end to my working day arrived, I bounced home in the 118 matatu to grab my things; I was going to Mombasa for the weekend! After meeting the other interns at the bus stop, we clambered aboard for our overnight trip to the coast. There were eight of us in total, all interns, all from different countries. Fabio (Brazil), Veerle (Holland), Bhavin (India), Heiko (Germany), Kazuki (Japan) and I left from Nairobi together, and when we arrived in Mombasa we met up with the others: Triinu (Estonia) and Veronika (Czech Republic).

One of Kenya’s oldest cities, Mombasa enjoys a rich history influenced by its extensive trade and battles with various foreign empires. The first written records point to trade in spices, timber, gold, ivory, tortoise shell and rhinoceros horn (as well as the notorious slave trade) with Arab and Persian merchants in the 1st century AD. Interestingly, it was the interaction of Arabs, local Africans and Persians which gave birth to the Swahili language, now Kenya’s second national language, and to the Swahili culture (Islamic-focused in contrast with the predominantly Christian interior). Despite the inherent ambiguity surrounding who is considered ‘Swahili’ nowadays, the main thing that seems to set them apart is their connection to the Muslim, particularly Arab, world.

Following Vasco de Gama’s visit in 1498, Portuguese invaders arrived in the early 16th century. After sacking the town repeatedly they eventually captured it and built the imposing Fort Jesus before being ousted by the sultans of Oman, who were not much more popular with the local Swahilis. The sultans themselves were ousted by the British in 1870, and following this Mombasa became the most important city in British East Africa. After Kenya became a fully fledged British colony in 1920 Mombasa was appointed capital of the separate British Coast Protectorate, however following independence the city was removed from the centre of Kenyan politics as focus turned inland and Nairobi became Kenya’s capital city. Mombasa politicians still campaign for a limited federation as they consider the coast culturally, economically and religiously distinct from the rest of Kenya.

The Mombasa old town still bears witness to its Arabic and Portuguese history, with many mosques lining the streets and Fort Jesus dominating the waterfront. Despite its allure we did not spend too much time there, instead opting to head down the coast to lie on the sand at Diani Beach. Despite all I’d heard, nothing prepared me for the sight of endless white sand stretching effortlessly on either side of our lodge, as we dumped our bags and ran excitedly down to the sea. After the coolness of Nairobi (which, occupying a high altitude, is quite temperate), the oppressive humidity of the coast would have been unbearable had it not been for the miles of warm sparkly water.

We arrived on Friday morning, and after recuperating some sleep lost during our very uncomfortable bus ride and sampling the sea’s refreshing coolness, we bought food for lunch and lazed around, reading and swimming, for the rest of the afternoon. That night was an early one, as we were to wake early the next morning to go snorkeling with some of the local fishermen who doubled as tourist touts. Sitting in their tiny wooden dhow, heading out towards the horizon and looking back at the nearly deserted beach, I felt very peaceful. The snorkeling was interesting and we saw some brightly coloured fish and interesting black spiky sea anemones, among other things. For lunch we feasted on fish caught fresh from the ocean with sauce and coconut rice, again courtesy of the local fishermen, then leaned back on our towels and pondered the sky for some hours, an activity disturbed only by the occasional dip in the ocean and finally, by our stomachs’ craving for dinner. After we had cooked, eaten and played a very interesting drinking game (the specifics of which now escape me), we headed down the local beach bar called Forty Thieves (its accompanying restaurant is called Ali Babar) for a boogie and a midnight walk along the sand staring at a sky clustered with stars including (I was excited to note) the Southern Cross.

On Sunday we woke late and after checking out, headed back to the bar to hang out before setting off for a self-guided tour through Mombasa Old Town. We checked out the fort, sat against its towering stone walls still warm from the fading sun, then headed for dinner at a local diner before catching the bus back to Nairobi, the real world.

 

 

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