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Here In Africa: Mombasa Miscellany

Barbara Durlacher recalls the historic port of Mombasa as it was decades ago.

On the edge of Mombasa Old Town lies Kilindini Creek, and the old dhow harbour. Narrow twisting alleys with stained, mildewed walls lead down to the glittering waters and the links with India and Arabia established over centuries of trading between East Africa and Arabia.

Over the centuries Arab dhows have skimmed across the sea with the south west monsoon like fragile water butterflies, and when the winds subside the boats lie over in Kilindini harbour waiting for the return of the trades, resting until the time comes to sail home. Dhows have been navigating these waters for millennia carrying cargoes of Persian carpets, salt and dates and returning with timber, slaves and spices, and the intermingling of trade and cultures has resulted in a polyglot society, with many of the locals converting to Islam and speaking a mixture of Arabic and Swahili.

Turbaned Arabs and Indians offload great bundles of goods, talking and singing as they run up and down the gangplanks from ship to shore, moving as if their burdens weighed nothing. The smell of curry wafts on the breeze mingled with sun-rotted fish guts and the iodine tang of drying sea-weed; the smell of sweat hangs over everything, the essence of Africa and Asia. Too wary to go aboard, I missed the chance of enjoying a bowl of curry eaten with my fingers while shielding my food from the onslaughts of hovering gulls. Now, years later, I regret my lack of confidence, as I feel I missed an experience which 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 “Madrassi” (religious school). Glancing inside the open door, I saw cross-legged boys dressed in spotless “khanzus” and skullcaps, reciting verses from the Koran. The Mullah kept time by tapping his cane, while the boys swayed in rhythm.

On a visit to Fort Jesus, I learnt it was built by the Portuguese in 1591 and used as a military base and strategic centre during the early colonisation of the area. It changed hands nine times, the last occupation ending in a five year siege before the Portuguese were starved into submission, taken prisoner and put to death. In the 1960s further exploration of the ancient coral fortifications found porcelain shards and glass beads indicating that Chinese explorers reached here centuries before Vasco da Gama’s voyage around the Cape.

I experienced another culture when I visited a shop selling a huge range of Indian saris. Bursting with rainbow colours, the interior was a delight. When I asked to see a selection, the proprietor and his assistant invited me to climb the wooden staircase to the mezzanine floor. Opening one large sandalwood trunk after the other they revealed their special treasures. These were gossamer silk saris patterned in swirling gold or silver, the product of many hours of labour. Expensive and delicate, the saris are only worn on important occasions, and passed down from mother to daughter. Scooping up large armfuls of the lovely cloth, the shopkeepers tossed the lengths onto the 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 I could afford. Luckily, I realised that my European colouring, made this a wasted effort. No matter how skilfully draped, no sari woven in India could transform me into a raven-haired Indian beauty sporting bright hibiscus in her gleaming tresses. The courteous Indian gentlemen clearly expected their subtle salesmanship to bring a sale, and their disappointment showed when, unable to make up my mind which of the beautiful fabrics to chose, despite falling in love with their colour and texture, I left without a purchase.

The time spent studying the gossamer fabrics and glowing colours of the 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 ancient Fort Jesus brought glimpses of a lifestyle very different from the European world I knew.

The following Sunday evening I watched Indian families strolling along the ocean embankment. 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.

Against a background of palm trees, flowering shrubs and near-equatorial heat, this ancient port is linked by winds and currents to Arabia and India; Africa’s colour and vitality is underscored by silken saris, and brash modernity with ancient cultures. Forty years ago this area was unaffected by the surge of modernity, but things have changed. As mass tourism has changed the face of trade, piracy and the Chinese invasion have altered local society creating a situation where only time will tell what will happen next.

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