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Jambo Paulo - Jambo Mykoli: 41 - Mombasa

...With an empty bottle balanced on the head and another in hand or in a basket, the women wrapped in very colourful khanga, a sarong, made their way to their local duka. A pound of maize meal, an onion, a potato, or two, a small tin of tomato paste went in the basket, while an ounce of cooking oil and half a pint of kerosene went in the bottles...

Kersi Rustomji has vivid memories of the Kenya port town. Mombasa.

Mombasa is a small tropical island in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Kenya about five hundred kilometres from Nairobi the capital. A road and a railway connect the two places. The coastal strip, roughly eighty kilometres wide and the island of Mombasa have quite a history, belonging to one power or the other over varying periods. From as far back as pre-biblical times, the Arab and Indian sailors knew this east coast of Africa along Mombasa and the island of Zanzibar.

They sailed to these shores for gold, ivory, and wild animal skins, but mostly for slaves. Much later, in the fifteenth century Mombasa and the coastal strip came under the control of the Omani Arabs, who established a sultanate at Zanzibar. While Zanzibar became an important port for trade, all the inland journeys were staged from Mombasa, where the Arabs had built a town and a port. The Arab and the Indian sailors used Mombasa as an embarkation point, for everything brought from the hinterland including slaves. The slaves then transhipped to other countries, or sold off in Zanzibar.

During this period, all the European nations were looking for a sea passage to India by sailing along the west coast of Africa and rounding the southern tip of the continent. Then sailing north along the east African coast, and turning eastwards, they hoped to reach India. In 1497, the Portuguese sea explorer Vasco da Gama, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, arrived at Mombasa, then Malindi, a port north of Mombasa. Here he met an Arab Ahmed bin Majid. Majid provided Da Gama, an Indian pilot Kahna. Kahna showed da Gama the sea routes to the west coast of India. At Malindi, the Portuguese built a pillar with a cross to mark this historic arrival.

After the establishment of this sea route, the European nations wanted to enlarge their trade with India, and a few years of wars followed. The Portuguese captured Mombasa, pushed the Arabs out, and built a fort, Fort Jesus, (1593-95) at the entrance of the harbour in the east. It is now a museum. The Arabs came back after a while, and laid a siege to the Fort by blockading the harbour entrance. They routed the Portuguese, and the Arabs rule was re-established. Some years later, through what is known as ‘the scramble for Africa’ by the European powers, Britain acquired Kenya as a colony, and rented the coastal strip from the Sultan of Zanzibar. The British stayed until Kenya became independent in 1963.

All of this resulted in Mombasa becoming a very interesting little town. The eastern part and the port that developed, is known as the Old Town and the Old Port. The Arabs and the Portuguese both built the old town. Built of coral, the houses were plastered over, and painted white with lime. Farther away from the town, were the mud houses with palm leaf thatch, which the indigenous and some Arab and Indian traders built.

The coral houses mostly comprised of a ground floor with a largish area, with a small barred wooden window, a sort of a false mezzanine, and a small room for a servant. This led to the upper floors, which split into two levels.

The upper level had a bedroom to one side, with a dining, kitchen, and a bath and toilet area, which backed from an open-air courtyard. The courtyard had a clothesline against a common wall with the adjoining house. A short wooden stair descended to the lower living room, which had windows of glass and wooden shutters at the top half but the windows in the lower half were of wood.

Our granny and grandpa lived in such a house at the end of Vasco da Gamma Street opposite the fish market when we came to Mombasa in late 1948. They used the upper level bedroom, while our two uncles, Merwanji, and Jalli, and Yezdi and I, slept in the lower level. Nargis aunty who had by now embraced Catholicism and become a nun lived at a convent. Parin aunty our eldest aunty, her husband Dara uncle and their daughter Roshan, left Zanzibar, moved to Mombasa, and lived separately.

All the rooms had very high ceilings to counter the heat. The windows of the lower room faced the fish market, the channel, and a floating bridge, the Nyali Bridge that connected the island to the north mainland. Diagonally across from the house was the Old Port, still used by the seafaring dhows from the Gulf region, and India as well as by the local coastal dhows, from Dar-es-Salaam, Tanga, Zanzibar, Malindi, and Lamu.
There was another section of the house at the ground floor level, which was below the room we had. This Swaleh an Arab rented who lived at the rear and ran a small duka, a shop, in front, which opened onto the road across from the fish market.
Swaleh’s was a typical little duka that sold loosely the usual range of rice, a variety of grains, pulses, and dried beans, flour, salt and sugar. Tiny packets of tea and coffee, cooking and lighting oil, made up the bulk of the stock. Dried, whole and ground spices sold by tablespoonful, wrapped in tiny newspaper packets. Cigarettes both hand rolled and packeted sold singly. Toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap bars cut into thick pieces, or soap cakes, and even a tin or two of talcum powder, could be had at Swaleh’s.

Hand brooms made of coconut leaf stalks, hessian, or coconut coir ropes, and handkerchiefs, hung from the awning, as did a variety of fruit in season. Gunny bags of coconut, onions, and potatoes, leaned against the wall of the shop, while kerosene and cooking oil tins were kept at the other end, just below his seat in the shop. Each tin had its long handled ladle dangling on the edge, within his easy reach.

There was a glassed cupboard with shelves against the main wall of the shop. In this were stacked all sorts of small household item ranging from needles, cotton reels, safety pins, buttons on cards, pencils, writing pads, and envelopes. Tins of shoe polish, razor blades, brushes, combs, and a hundred other items were jammed in it. Each of these could be bought singly or more. One bought just a leaf from a writing pad and an envelope for a letter, a single needle, a button or two, or a razor blade according to one’s needs.

Generally, the design of these Arab dukas followed the same pattern all over the town. The main part comprised of a raised counter divided into boxes to hold the loose foodstuff like, rice, maize flour, dried beans, and a variety of grain or pulses. Behind it, and along one wall was a cupboard with shelves and glassed doors. An old refrigerator stood in one corner containing soft drinks. Sacks, bags, and bulky items, leaned on the outer edge of the shop. The shopkeepers occupied one of the two positions depending on the width of these little places. If it was wide, he worked between the raised counter and the glassed cupboard. In a narrow shop, he sat on a cushion at one end of the raised counter, from where he served everybody. In this case, if any item was too far from his reach the customers had to bring it to him. Every duka had a set of scales hanging from above and a small kerosene lamp that hung within easy reach of those who bought loose cigarettes. With the coming of power, a bright bulb hanging from the ceiling lit the shop at night.

Early mornings and evenings were the busiest times for these dukas. The morning rush mostly comprised of tea, coffee, or sugar buyers while during the daytime bits of everything were bought until siesta time between noon and two in the afternoon. During this lull, the shop owners rolled thin cigarettes and loaded them on raffia tray for those who favoured these, made of a particularly strong tobacco. Major activities resumed around four in the evening as mostly women and a few men came to buy ingredients for the night meal.

With an empty bottle balanced on the head and another in hand or in a basket, the women wrapped in very colourful khanga, a sarong, made their way to their local duka. A pound of maize meal, an onion, a potato, or two, a small tin of tomato paste went in the basket, while an ounce of cooking oil and half a pint of kerosene went in the bottles. Ten cents worth of rock salt and small packets of spices and sometimes a piece of dried salted fish or a shark fin, a few ounces of grains, pulses or rice made up the bulk of the buying. As they gathered and awaited their turns the maneno, gossip, and news of the day discussed.

If an old lady felt the Arab did not in some ways treat her fairly, she would proclaim that he would never get to marry her daughter. At this the younger women would coquettishly placate him by promising him their daughters, all this in the midst of great laughter, clapping, and even ululating.

The women in the area knew everybody around their places, and in our part, they knew granny and grandpa. As such, many of Swaleh’s customers knew me and if I was at the shop, they always chatted with me. There was an old gray haired lady, around the corner house who also knew mum, and she was the only one who called me, mwana Jeroo, Jeroo’s son. Everybody else at the shop, the fish market, or the Old Port, called me mtoto Bajoji, Burjorji’s boy.

As night fell, the men emerged to buy their after dinner smokes, gathered at the shop, and had their share of gossip. Some sat around a small table to play draughts or whist. The dukas generally remained open until about ten. When these closed for the night, a quiet lull settled over the place, until the raucous crows and the six bells at the Old Port proclaimed another dawn.


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