Shifting Sands

When I visited Zanzibar in December, I was disappointed to see all the tourists wandering around although they didn’t seem to have have changed the Swahili lifestyle of the island’s residents, and tourism was obviously an important source of income for the tiny island.  Fast forward to this week, my second trip to the island this year and I observed my pleasure in seeing tourists littering the streets as my taxi drove in from the airport

What changed?    I went to Mombasa.

Forty years ago, Mombasa was a sleepy coastal town, not unlike Stone Town in Zanzibar is today, with a long auspicious history of trade due to its port being the main access point from the heart of Africa to the Indian Ocean.  Most of its inhabitants had grown up there.  Most were native Swahili speakers.  It was a predominantly Muslim town, where women wore black buibui, and men wore embroidered kofia (round, straight-sided cap) and the call of prayer could be heard echoing from multiple mosques five times a day.     Then, it was safe for me to walk around in Kibokoni,  the oldest part of the town, where several story high Arab style buildings were the dominant architecture. part of the city, and the closest landmark was Fort Jesus,  built by Portuguese traders on 1593-6.    At the time,  I lived on Ndia Kuu (“Main Street”) in Kibokoni.  I had dreamed of returning one day to walk the same paths between the houses and along Ndia Kuu along which I had traveled on a daily basis when I lived there.

But the Mombasa that I knew has vanished.  It is no longer safe.   According to my family, it is now a city of ushenzi (craziness).   Thieves wander the streets.   I even saw a group of them circulating among the cars stopped at a traffic light when I was on my way home one night.  Soud, my brother, who was driving me at the time, closed all the windows and locked the doors.

Niliibiwa simu yangu (I had my phone stolen), Soud explains.  While one man distracted me at my window, the other reached into the passenger window, pulled up the lock, opened the door, and climbed right in to take my phone.

At dusk, everyone closes and locks their doors.  Even during the day, doors are locked behind great high walls in areas where cement walls, whose upper edges are adorned with pieces of broken glass, sharp edges directly towards the sky to dissuade a more audacious thieve from scaling the wall to try his hand at relieving you of your meagre possessions, surround every house.

I had heard about wazungu (foreigners) driving in Nairobi being attacked in their cars but, somehow, in the ever-hopeful naiveté that still plagues me at the ripe old age of 67, I had presumed Mombasa to be secure in her dignified heritage, that only the bara (inland) would be afflicted by theft and greed.   But the Mombasa has not been saved.  Tour companies have closed their offices in favor of other safer destinations, one of which is  Zanzibar.   Refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as people from other parts of Kenya, have changed the ethnic profile of the town.  It is now a sprawling megolAnd I cannot help but remember the reason why I could not come to Kenya at all until I had closed my service in Rwanda —  Peace Corps closed its office and sent all volunteers home in due to the dangers of living in Kenya.    If Peace Corps thought that things were bad enough to close what had previously been a well-established post, then perhaps I should not underestimate the danger that now exists in Mombasa, particularly for a mzungu.  

During my two week stay in Mombasa, and I admit that most of my time in town was spent at home with my mother and sibligns,  I saw only a handful of white people in the town, although there were more at the beach hotel where I stayed.   Still, whereas in the past the population at such a hotel would have been predominantly European (with perhaps a smattering of Americans), this was not the case when I was there.  Visitors had come from around the world,  Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the United States, to stay at one of the hotels owned by the Kenyatta family, descendents of Jomo Kenyatta who led Kenya to independence.  Of course, I didn’t know when I made the booking that this was one of their hotels, nor did I know when I upgraded my room to a spectacular ocean view, that I shared a wall with the apartment that was once his, and is still used by his mother when she comes to stay at the hotel.

My heart weeps for what has been lost, my mind screams with frustration at not being able to walk around and visit some of my previous haunts.    I did have the opportunity to wander through Kibokoni; it was the only place where I saw any wazungu and they looked as scruffy as the people hanging out on street corners.  Trash was piled in corners between the houses, and even along the shore line beneath the house where I had lived when I first went there to study Swahili.   Although it has been a struggle for me to accept a new reality, I am beginning to begrudgingly accept the possibility that my beloved Mombasa is no longer be who she was.

I did not understand what it meant to be in one of the safest African countries for the past year when I was in Rwanda.  For me, security was what I remembered it to be in Mombasa, and Nairobi, in forty years ago.   Certainly, in those early days, you needed to keep your valuables close, but you were unlikely to be attacked in broad daylight, and tourists could walk around happily taking pictures in Kibokoni without worrying about someone blatantly walking up and tearing their camera from around their necks.  You were most definitely safe in cars.  As long as you kept your wits about you, you were safe.  In fact, I have  never been robbed in Africa, except for having several dresses stolen off my clothesline in Rwanda.  The only time I was “pickpocketed” was in Paris, in the early seventies.  Admittedly, thieves in Rwanda will take your phone if you are an mzungu using your phone openly on the street; one of my colleagues lost her phone that way.  Still, all of this is within the realm of the expected in my experiences living overseas.  What now exists in Kenya is not.

Visually, the town has not been kept up well, there is trash piled by the sides of the roads, as there was in Comoros.  The cats who wander the streets are gray; no matter how much they groom, they cannot keep up with the the city’s smoky gray dust.  And, of course, many must spend more time roaming in search of food than the typical domestic cats in the U.S., who have plenty of time to clean themselves between meals lovingly provided by their owners.  As an avid cat “rescuer”, it was  painful to see  homeless kitties, and even the “homed” kitties, struggling to feed themselves.  Cats who live with people are fed only table scraps; meat and fish are rareties, as I discovered when I brought a tub of meat, chicken and fish that I had spirited out of the buffet line at the hotel where I stayed home to the the four adolescents cats who belong to on of my Swahili “grandchildren”.   They ate the way feral cats do — as if they are starving and can’t get enough.  They had fat bellies for a few days, once I figured out how to bring them food from the hotel, but this didn’t change the fact that I knew they were underfed, as were all the other sorry souls wandering the streets.    Once again, I came face-to-face with my intolerance for feeling helpless to effect a change that I believe should occur.

And so, as I stood on the veranda of my fabulous room in the beach hotel where I stayed in Mombasa, watching the waves crash along the shore beneath me and feeling the wind sweepacross the Indian Ocean to caress my aching heart with gentle assurances that life will, in the end, prevail, I realized that, in the same way that I cannot stop seeing in my mind’s eye the grown men and women in front of me as the children whom I helped raised 40 years ago, Mombasa too is frozen in time in my memory as the place that it was.   I choose to happily embrace my denial as I boarded the plane to go to Zanzibar.  But when I got off the plane and was escorted through well-maintained streets  to my hotel, the one word that came to mind was that spending time in my beloved Mombasa had been oppressive.

As I walked the streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar today, I realized that I have already transferred my affections to this place that reminds me of the Mombasa I left behind.  My family will always be in Mombasa, but my geographical Swahili home is now here in Zanzibar.  It is to this place that I now dream about returning, not Mombasa.   In the blink of an eye, my view of my East African world has shifted, reminding me how the sand upon which I stand when I observe the world can be swept out from under me without warning.


One thought on “Shifting Sands

  1. Very scary circumstances. Reminds me of how my happy memories of Roxbury with
    my grandparents turned scary as it changed til my family finally moved away. See you soon.


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