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Jo'Burg Days: Mombassa Miscellany

...Arab dhows, like fragile water butterflies, have skimmed across the sea with the south west monsoon for thousands of years...

Barbara Durlacher paints a word portrait of Kenya's major port, Mombassa.

Mombasa has the old dhow harbour and ancient, mysterious Arab Town with its stained, mildewed walls and narrow twisting alleys. Links with India and Arabia have existed for millennia, and Arab dhows, like fragile water butterflies, have skimmed across the sea with the south west monsoon for thousands of years.

When these winds subside, the dhows lie over in Kilindini harbour, waiting for the return of the north-west trades. The exchange of goods and cultures has existed for centuries and these vessels with their long pedigree have sailed across these seas with cargoes of Persian carpets, salt and dates from Arabia with cargoes to trade for timber, slaves and the spices of Africa. The intermingling of trade and cultures has resulted in a polyglot society, many of whom have adopted Islam as their religion and Swahili as their lingua franca.

A day spent exploring showed me turbaned Arabs and Indians offloading great bundles of goods, chattering and bantering as they ran up and down a narrow gangplank from ship to shore, each man moving as if their burdens weighed nothing. Wafted on the sea breeze came the fragrant smell of a curry simmering in the bowels of a dhow, slimy fish guts rotting in the sun and the iodine tang of drying sea-weed. Mingled with the animal stink of sweat, it was the very essence of Africa and Asia.

As an inexperienced traveller I was dressed more appropriately for a day at the office than a visit to Arab Town. High-heeled sling back shoes, a narrow pencil skirt, white wrist-length gloves (unbelievable!) and seamless nylon tights that stuck to my legs like glue created huge discomfort in the near-equatorial heat. Picking my way unsteadily down the unevenly tarred road I must have been an unusual sight for the locals. In contrast, they were dressed for the heat in flip-flops, sleeveless light cotton dresses and wide-brimmed sunhats. My citified outfit was nothing short of idiotic, decreed by what I imagined was appropriate from far distant Cape Town.

Inappropriately dressed and unused to tropical travel, I was hugely disadvantaged. This trip to Mombasa took place at a time when more formal dress and behaviour were the norm, and fraternization with the locals almost unknown. Had I know better, I might have dropped my guard and accepted a chance invitation to come on board one of the dhows. Perhaps if I’d done so, my visit would have led to the offer to eat a bowl of aromatic fish curry to eat with my fingers while shielding it from the onslaughts of the hovering gulls. But I lacked the confidence to make an overture to the men on the boat, and missed an experience which surely, would have rivalled any sun-dazzled day at the beach.

Following the haunting call of the Muezzin, I wandered through the narrow streets of the old Arab quarter, passing a mosque with its Madrasa (religious school). Glancing into the open door, I saw cross-legged boys dressed in spotless white “khanzus” and knitted skullcaps, reciting verses from the Koran. The Mullah kept time by tapping his long cane and all the while, the boys swayed rhythmically as they recited the verses.

A visit to Fort Jesus, the ancient Portuguese fortification built in 1591, revealed new clues over who first discovered Africa. Recently unearthed, porcelain fragments and glass beads indicate that Chinese explorers reached these coasts four or five hundred years before Vasco da Gama voyaged round the Cape.

Another insight into a different culture was a visit to a shop selling a huge range of Indian saris. Bursting with rainbow colours, the interior was a delight. When I expressed a wish to examine several, the elderly proprietor and his assistant invited me to climb the wooden staircase to a sort of half-mezzanine floor.

Opening one large sandalwood trunk after another, the merchants revealed their special treasures, delicate silk saris with six-inch hand-stitched borders of heavy gold or silver. Decorated in elaborate swirling patterns, these gossamer silks were the product of many hours of skilled labour. So expensive and delicate they are only worn on the most important occasions, the saris are passed from mother to daughter down the generations. Scooping up large armfuls of the lovely cloth, the shopkeepers tossed the lengths onto the bright Persian carpets until the jumbled fabrics resembled a bed of flowers. Beautiful, and designed to tempt the most resistant heart, it took all my self-control to refrain from purchasing as many as my meagre purse would allow, but luckily for me I realised that with my European colouring, it would be a wasted effort. No matter how skilfully draped, no sari woven in India could transform me into a raven-haired Indian beauty sporting a bright hibiscus flower in her gleaming tresses.

Unable to make up my mind which of the beautiful fabrics to chose, despite falling instantly in love with the colour and texture of each, I left without a purchase. The courteous Indian gentlemen clearly expected their subtle salesmanship to produce a sale, and their disappointment was clear when I left without a package.

That half-hour studying the gossamer fabrics and lustrous colours of the silken saris brought a delicious feeling of the exotic. The activity and vitality of the dhow harbour where the lascars laboured under the harsh sun was a scene scented with spices, wood-smoke and the hot dust of the interior, while the brilliant blue sea glimpsed through the gun-ports of the five-hundred year old Fort Jesus brought glimpses of the exotic very different from the European-style life I was accustomed to.

I watched as Indian families strolled along the sea-front embankment on a Sunday evening. The little girls wore party dresses; the wives and grandmothers beautiful saris. Happy and well-dressed, they made a stark contrast to the stick-like silhouettes of mussel pickers working the rocks at low tide.

Superimposed on the Indian sub-text were palm trees, brilliant flowering shrubs and near-equatorial heat. Linked by the winds and currents to Arabia and India, the brilliance and vitality of Africa was underscored with the decadent beauty of silken saris, and contrasted brash modernity with ancient cultures. This dot on the coast of Africa was unique and when I visited, demonstrated the concept of African Union sixty years before the term was invented. Together, they coalesced briefly into the essence of Mombasa, distilled through the prism of a stranger’s eyes.

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