Moments in Mombasa

The landscape between Hunter’s Lodge and Mtito Andei on the Nairobi-Mombasa road is dotted with the skeletal figures of the baobab tree.

The Baobab tree has a strong narrative in African society. It is said that the tree is planted on the grave of an elder, and that its spirit lives in the branches of the tree.

It also represents the continent’s oral storytelling practices, since children in a village would cluster under the shade of a baobab tree for the afternoon’s story session.

The baobab is also the only tree which looks like it was planted upside down since its roots closely resemble its branches.

A lesser known tale about the baobab tree is that its fruit, the mabuyu seed, is a popular coastal snack. The seed is cooked, sugared and coloured – red, green or yellow – to the delight of children who will spend hours sucking the sweet-sour powdery coat, down to its black kidney bean shaped pip.

The mosque on Mackinnon road, approximately an hour and a half from Mombasa. It houses the tomb of an Indian man who worked on the railway. All travellers  – regardless of religion – slow their vehicles in a sign of respect to him, and the practice has now assumed legendary powers since it is said that in remembering him, he blesses your journey.

Burhani Gardens in Mombasa are just a snippet of its Nairobi namesake are tucked in a corner of the island – next to the law courts and adjacent to the new County Assembly. They offer a leafy escape from the heat that radiates off the cement and the ubiquitous diesel throttle of the tuk tuks.

With benches and a marble fountain, the Garden is home to some extremely old trees that are self-encapsulated in roots.

The ways in which the town of Mombasa ages are never immediately visible – because the town has a heritage that spans centuries, and signs of aging slow down after after the first few centuries . So to a visitor to Old Town, the ornately carved Lamu doors will look as strong and stalwart as they did before.

But there are always small ways in which to track the passing of time. Whether it is the peeling paint on the kahawa pot and cups at the Fort Jesus roundabout – so celebrated when it was first  designed but now just an emblem of a dying and forgotten Swahili culture.

Or the painted signs on buildings warning of damage to the protected heritage site,  and the threat of its impending loss.

Or the overnight appearance of an M-Pesa shop in a building on Makadara Road, which once housed the law practice of one of Mombasa’s leading criminal lawyers.

The artistry of Mombasa’s wood workers – like Lamu’s stays strong – and the lanes of Old Town are still lined by artisans engraving curly patterns into a smooth plank of wood.

In less than a decade, tuk tuks have taken over the roads of Mombasa. Imported from India where they are known as auto rickshaws, they have slowly insinuated themselves onto the coastal roadsin a way that is unrivalled by private vehicle or matatus.

The rumble of their diesel engines begins at six in the morning and threads every moment of the entire day through until nine at night.

For just Sh50, a tuk tuk will take you anywhere on the island, and it’s back cab can easily fit either three people or two people and some luggage. The make shift door with a stopper lock and the open back with a flapping piece of plastic does not however guarantee the safety of your bags. You would be well advised to hold onto your luggage in case a hand leans in while you are in stationary in traffic and tries to swipe it.

Because of the multicultural and tourist feel of the coastal city, tuk tuk drivers speak a little of every language. And they are completely fearless on the narrow roads – making sharp turns, unsignalled lane changes and cutting across entire swathes of oncoming cars in their daring 3 wheeler.

As much as they are a menace to Mombasa drivers, I cannot help but wish they were more popular in Nairobi.

After a hot day in town, there is nothing like the sensuous touch of the Indian Ocean breeze to cool the sweat on your brow and still a myriad of questions. Whether you are looking across at the luxury sea-front apartments on the Mombasa mainland or out to sea – imagining the ships and the people who arrived on the monsoon winds and the crest of a wave – everything seems to fall into focus and, if only for a minute, the future appears less intimidating.


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