Mombasa’s thriving port lies nears some of the world’s best beaches
by Kevin Mwachiro, BBC News, Nairobi
Pressed up against the shoreline of the Old Town in Mombasa, not far from the imposing Portuguese-built Fort Jesus, is a large, well-maintained house with a beautiful entrance.
There’s a solid four-metre frame of hardwood, an arch, and a central column of intricate, symbolic carving dividing two brass-studded doors.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting out of the open windows, however, suggests guests are very much welcome.
To an expert in the finer details of Swahili culture, this door tells a long story. A man who embodies some of that history opens the door.
Khalifa Bin Mubarak Al Hinai is in full ceremonial regalia – a long, black ancestral gown and a brightly patterned orange headdress. It’s the end of Ramadan and he’s playing host to senior figures in the Muslim community. His father, an Omani, was the Governor here for over a quarter of a century under British colonial rule.
The coffee flows freely, accompanied by halwa, a traditional sweet which rekindles childhood memories of Mombasa.
The room where we talk is festooned with the trappings of imperial power. He points to the 400 year-old ebony chair, where the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother sat when hosted by his late father in 1959. A photograph of the event at Mombasa Old Port hangs on the wall nearby.
“I was nine years old,” he explains, “and we greeted the Queen by kissing her hand.”
The fading black and white picture is a reminder of the shifts in colonial control that Mombasa has witnessed. The conquerors and traders who came here across the centuries all left their mark on the local, African cultures.
The regional language reflects Kenya’s demographic blend, with Arabic touches mixed with African dialects. Kiswahili is spoken most noticeably here on the coast, reflecting a strong sense of common identity.
There’s a swirling blend to the city, like the water in the creek where it meets the incoming tide. Mombasa embraces diversity and is distinctively different compared to the rest of the country.
But there are challenges – modernity, commerce, and the politics of Kenya and neighbouring countries – all lapping at the shores of this island city.
Portugal, Oman, India and Britain all left their mark in the past. Today, Somalia is very much part of the cultural mix. Mombasa is now a safe haven for many Somalis leaving behind decades of fighting in their native land.
Conflict in Somalia has had a less positive effect on Mombasa too. The Kenyan army’s involvement there has magnified the hardline Islamist view that Kenya is a legitimate target. In late August, smoke rose from the streets of Mombasa. The killing of a radical cleric incensed some of his followers and they took to the streets, clashing with police.
I covered that story. Only a few days earlier, I had visited a funfair in the centre of the city to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The place was full of families – Muslim, Christian and Hindum – all having fun together.
That is the picture of Mombasa that sticks in my mind. A bustling place, a bit ramshackle in parts, with the beautifully restored areas of the Old Town, and others in dire need of a good spring clean.
Most importantly, a place marked by the tolerance of its people, and a strong sense of what it means to be from here.