We depart the Serena Beach Hotel for an historic tour of Mombasa. This port city has traded with the Arabs for 2500 years, and the culture is decidedly different from the highlands. The Portuguese rounded the cape in the 1490’s and eventually overtook the port. Fort Jesus was carved out of the coral limestone in 1593 and resembles the cochina fort at St. Augustine in Florida. It is actually the oldest building in its original form in Africa, except for the Egyptian pyramids. After 105 years, the fort fell to the Sultan of Oman, which ruled the coastline until the treaty of Berlin in 1895, which designated the British colony of Kenya.
Leaving the Fort, it became immediately clear what has happened in the last 100 years. The British arrived with great ambitions of colonial expansion, building roads, hotels, post offices and other infrastructure. Following the independence of Kenya in 1965, it appears that most of these historic areas have been entirely neglected. Like many of the highways throughout Kenya, much of the old port has been in disrepair for nearly 50 years. Newer buildings have been financed in the last ten years by Somali “refugees”, who have taken over the Mombasa real estate market, offering up to 130% of the list price on dilapidated buildings and immediately replacing them with multi-story, low income apartments.
Peter, our tour guide, speaks fluent Swahili, English, German and French. Walking north through crowded, but impoverished narrow streets and alleyways, he shows no fear. We sample fresh potato chips from a street vendor and eat smoked shark meat off the back of an open truck. The stench of the fish market is overpowering. We see families preparing lunch outside over charcoal fires. A group of boys bathe and wash their clothes in the harbor. Two men and a woman climb into the dumpster for a meal. Feral cats scatter in front of us, their ribs cage visible through the thin fur. A paraplegic woman with flip-flops on her hands drags herself along the sidewalk.
While 90% of Kenyans profess to be Christian, these statistics are reversed in Mombasa and other East African ports, where 200 years of Omani rule and frequent trade with the Middle East have created a predominantly Muslim culture. A large minority of women wear traditional black Burkhas, while their glamorous shoes and dramatic mascara belie the femininity hidden within. It is a cool 85 degrees today – I can only imagine the commitment required to wear these garments in the oppressive November heat. I am in line to buy a bottle of water when the prayer call sounds. The shopkeeper politely runs me out and locks the door.
We pass through the newer part of the city en route to the airport. Modern buildings and open parks predominate. We pause to photograph the iconic elephant tusks at the city entrance. Matatus crowded with commuters beep and serve in bumper to bumper traffic.