If Mombasa old town was to be a person, then, he’d without a doubt be that old Swahili pirate with lots and lots of delightful ancient travel tales and relics and a single eye as evidence of his numerous adventures.
A ten minutes ride on a tuk-tuk from downtown Mombasa town, past tall whistling coconut palms, will deliver you, safe and sound at the entrance of Mombasa old town. The ancient town will then, as in a time travel tale, stretch out its arms and enfold you into its rich history, taking you years and years back.
Yet it is not Mombasa Old town’s history that will take your breath away at first but its 18th century artful architecture; carved and curved beautiful old buildings, elegant balconies and coral walls whose designs were influenced by Portuguese and Islamic Arab traders of old.
A stroll around the old city through its narrow streets and boulevards is as pleasant a tour as you can possibly make though it is highly unlikely that you will cover the whole 180 acres of land which make Old Town Mombasa.
A rich cultural melting point, Old town Mombasa is home to a blend of people among them Arabs, Asians, local Swahili’s and who knows, you might even bump upon the occasional Portuguese who decided to stay behind after completing the construction of Fort Jesus.
Historically, the architecture of the old town was influenced by Mombasa’s trade culture. Trade came about as a result of the town housing old port, the first harbor in Kenya. The old port, it is said, still brings in spices from Zanzibar.
The people of old town are as delightful and mysterious as the town itself. The women and girls, clad in buibuis and kangas and the men in long white kanzus will sure send a warm smile your direction. And if you happen to have a minute, nay, an hour to spare, then these good natured people, famed for their rich oral history, might tell you winding tales of invisible Djinnis that live on the ancient walls in the town.
If, like me, you have a fetish for keepsakes, then Mombasa Old Town will charm you some more, for the many old buildings are but, alas! Antique and curio shops full of treasures like Arabian vases and Aladdin lamps, Portuguese art, Asian rags and Swahili artifacts.
And if this treasure hunt leads you to Ali’s Curio shop, then know right there, that you are standing on a history house. For Ali’s, with its coral walls, was built by Brits in 1898 and it housed the first police station in Mombasa.
A keen listener might hear in the distance, the sound of swash and backwash waves slapping the sandy shore. For the town is located on Tudor creek and thus behind the town buildings is the vast Indian ocean. And if you listen some more, then, you might just hear the rustling palm trees whispering dark secrets of 15th century ivory trade.
This article was first published in the Daily Nation