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Open Features, Open Features: Zamani

A vivid impression of the sights and sounds of daily life in the African port of Mombasa in the olden days is recalled by Kersi Rustomji, the author of Jambo Paulo, Jambo Mikhali.

During the old days, zamani, in granny’s time and until the Kilindini harbour was built, the Old Port was a very busy place as all the steamers from the UK, Europe, India and the Far East berthed here. In fact, it was here that granny had landed when she arrived in Kenya with her stepmother to join her dad in Nairobi, in 1898. In addition, the ocean going dhows huge wooden sailing ships, some up to a hundred tons from Arabia, the Persian Gulf and the west coast of pre-partitioned India anchored here in the channel.

A line for hand-pushed trolleys ran from Fort Jesus, along Vacso da Gama street, up to a sharp left bend leading to the Old Port. A large square bounded by houses enclosed the port entrance. Kilindini road from the town center dipped to join Vasco Da Gama Road as it entered the square, angled sharply to the left, and then narrowed between a house, an ice-factory and a cold store. All the traffic had to give way in both directions here as only a single vehicle could pass through the tight gap, and it was a spot for long loud hooting when motorized transport commenced. All the hand-carts had the right of way and cars or trucks had to reverse out of the corner to let them pass.

Granny told us about the European passengers alighting at the Old Port. She said the women wore long thin dresses with lots of frills and had bonnets and carried parasols, while the men were dressed in khahki or white jodhpurs, shirt and a tunic with pith helmets. She also said that the Indians wore dhotis and a long shirt, although many of them wore European trousers and shirts. Nearly all of them wore a turban, known as a pagdhi or pugri, while others wore black skullcaps. The women wore very colourful cholis, a kind of tight fitting blouse, saris and open sandals called champals. They always covered their faces with their saris.

In the daytime the square was full of ngari, from the Indian word gadi, four wheeled flat carts and two wheeled box carts, operated by the hamalies, the cart handlers. The flat carts had a long single T handle connected to the front wheels, which was used for steering. While one man steered, the rest pushed and in both types of carts it was the rear crew who pulled back to slow and stop as none of the carts had brakes.

The two-wheeled box carts had two long handles on either side. The leader, whose position was between the handles, steered the cart while his two or more assistants, pushed from the rear and the sides. Both these carts piled the loads high and often on a sharp downhill bend, there were accidents and the load spilled into the road. If these were panniers of dates everybody had a great time collecting them until the Arab owner came to supervise the reloading. As soon as he was spotted, everyone scattered to avoid his stick as his loud curses, "Wa shaitani, mwivi yote," "Of the devil, all you thieves," followed. All the passers-by had a bellyful of laughs as everybody scattered, clutching their hauls. Once I took home a shirt full of dried figs which had come loose from a cart that had crashed at the bottom of the steep road near Fort Jesus.

Goods for up-country destinations such as Nairobi, Kisumu or Kampala in Uganda were transported to the station in these carts. All the hamalies had a chant used when they put in extra effort going uphill or pushing a heavy load. Bent almost double they dug in their toes as the leader called out harambee, and with a replying, heh, they strained to haul the cart over the hill. “Harambee, heh, harambee, heh,” was heard everywhere.

There were still a few of both types of these carts working from the old port when we arrived in Mombasa although it was not long before the carts were replaced by lorries. Occasionally a flat cart was seen moving goods from a warehouse to the shops in the narrow streets of the Old Town, but these also gave way to trucks. Then two more words were added to Swahili language. One was ‘derewa’, meaning driver and ‘taniboi’ - turning-boy, his assistant. The ‘taniboi’ helped with the loading and offloading, but his job real job was to start the truck by turning the engine with a crank handle; hence the name. The name remained even after self-starters became common in all vehicles.

All the streets in the old town were one-way due to their narrowness. Trucks that loaded or off-loaded at the shops parked half on the pavement to let other vehicles pass. Sometimes though, one had to wait for the truck to finish, as two vehicles could not pass in narrow parts. These brief breaks were often used to have a quick kahawa (coffee) from the vendors. One did not worry about the hooting or shouts from behind, as there was simply no way to move forward till the lorries finished.

The two-wheeled carts which were mainly used by the small-scale sellers continued for some years as they were able to move through the narrow streets between the old houses. These men sold sufurias, pots, pans and kitchenware, while others sold fruit, or water and the chupaa naa debe man bought old bottles and tins. The nguvo na kitamba, the clothes and cloth seller conducted his business with a box cart. Arabs from the dhows hired the box carts to transport carpets, dried dates, figs and fish, chinaware and large enamelled platters, and cotton fabric, towels, bed sheets and all sorts of woven material, which they had obtained from earlier voyages to the west coast of India and which they sold in the streets of the Old Town. The dark pink roof tiles from Manglor on the south western coast of India were also a lucrative cargo brought by the Indian dhows that was carried in the box carts.

There were other traders who use these carts too. Each of these traders had their particular methods. The pots and pan vendors the mali kwa mali, worked on barter exchanging old clothes for whatever the customer needed. Of course, one only got what they valued as the price of the clothes. A good old shirt with all the buttons might buy a small saucepan or an enamel plate. The trading cry of these vendors was, mali kwa mali, mali kwa mali - goods for goods. Other sellers dealt in money. Chupa na ndebe, shouted the man who bought empty bottles and tins.

The water carriers used old four-gallon petrol tins, which they filled at local watering points and then sold the water in areas where there was no running water. They did not call out, but had an ingenious way of announcing their presence. Across the wheels of their carts, they attached a piece of fencing wire, onto which forty to fifty flattened crown tops were threaded. As he pushed the cart, these tumbled from end to end and made a swishing sound; this was his calling card. Sometimes we played tricks on these vendors by hiding behind a window and hailing a vendor while keeping hidden. We watched gleefully as they searched the windows, before departing muttering curses of ‘hawa watoto, mashaitan’i, these children, the devils.

For passenger transport, rickshaws were available to hire to various destinations within the built up areas. There was a rickshaw rank on the Kilindini road next to the Palace Hotel, as well as at the Fort and rickshaws worked from the port and the railway station. When we came to Mombasa there were still a few of these age-old conveyances around, although modern transport soon took over when taxies became common and ultimately the rickshaws also disappeared as they became obsolete. Only the double handled box carts of the various small goods and produce vendors continued to plough the narrow streets of the Old Town.

Another type of cart continued to thrive on the footpaths however. These were used in both in the Old and New towns. The carts had a roof of flattened kerosene tins on four corner posts and sold all sorts of local and imported fruits like apples, grapes, pears, tangerines and oranges as well as madafu, green coconuts and pineapples. The carts were mounted on supports alongside a vacant lot of a shop. This way they were able to get a power line for a light from the shop owner who charged them a flat rate. The bright naked bulb hung from the cart roof. Those who had no access to such power source used paraffin pressure lamps, which dangled from the cart roof. It was fascinating to catch the smells of all the ripening fruit as a breeze wafted it along the pavement.

All the fruit except grapes could be bought singly. Sliced pineapple lay around an ice block on a large enamel platter. The end was chopped off a madafu (coconut) to get to the fresh sweet juice. Mangoes, hands of bananas, and piles of oranges and tangerines made a very colourful and aromatic display. During the season, bunches of ripe red and yellow dates and spiky crimson lychees dangled from the carts alongside pomegranates and lengths of sugar cane tied in a bundle. Big hunks of fanas, Jackfruit, sat cooling in large enamel or aluminum trays.

As evening approached, a group of maize and cassava sellers arrived. They carried a large charcoal brazier and a bagful of dried maize on the cob, or cassava. The braziers were placed on the footpath and soon the smell of roasting maize or cassava floated down the street. Those who sold roasted peanuts, chickpeas, and roasted popcorn and dried peas joined the other sellers. Cones made from old newspapers were used to contain the various purchases, and all the sellers had their own patches.

There was yet another group of hawkers who walked through the streets of the Old Town, Ganjoni and even through Nazi Moja, the newer part of Mombasa. These were the women who vended a variety of edibles. They sold roasted cashews, peanuts, dried fish, muhogo (cassava) cooked in fresh coconut milk, garnished with cracked cardamom and the good were carried in a wide basket on her head.

Another very popular street food was maragwe, a variety of beans, also cooked in coconut milk with cinnamon sticks, while small bundles of dried tamarind and malimau, native lemons, were also sold. Some carried coconuts and platters of mandazi, triangular bread kneaded with coconut milk then fried, or coconut and peanut fudge and other cookies. Each of these sellers wndered through the narrow lanes calling out their specialty. The cashew woman sang, “Haya korosho, korosho!” “Haya cashews, cashews,” while others called out “Samakee…” “fish…” or “nazi na nazi,” “coconuts and coconuts” or “mandazee…”

Along the main roads and the narrow streets of the town the kahawa man started the day early. From Salim Road south these men sold coffee in large shiny brass samovars, resting on a brazier. Wearing a kofiya, a white cap, a lungi, a wrap-around skirt or shorts, a shirt and a small khahki jacket, the kahawa men jingled their tiny china coffee cups. Each had his own jingle and patch. A kahawa man would start from the Indian shops at the back of the market and make his way up to the police station. At each shop he would find the right amount, ten cents per cup waiting for him on the table. The coffee cups were placed on the tables and he quickly darted to the shops across and served the daily order. Then he returned to the first shops to retrieve the cups, and dipped and rinsed them in the brass water bucket that dangled from the samovar. From shop to shop he covered his patch then broke for a rest before resuming his round at three in the afternoon. The kahawa man knew his customers as he remembered who had tangawizi, ground dry ginger, or even salt with the coffee.
Sadly these cries as well as the clink of the coffee vendor are no more, as trading in vastly expanded Mombasa is no longer possible and many of these traditional ways are now a thing of past. The only memory of the kahawa men is a monument outside the Fort Jesus Museum. However, the water carrier is still around, his old petrol ndebe replaced by plastic jerry cans.
Today new salespeople have replaced the old sellers. These are the footpath vendors who spread their wares on the pavements under the storefronts along the major streets, but the dukas, the small Indian-owned shops, continue their fragile existence, as the supermarkets price them out and shopping habits change with the passing years.


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