I’m here in Mombasa on the coast. Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest city and a popular holiday spot for its beaches and laid-back lifestyle. It’s also a different culture from the interior. Here, the Swahili, Arab, Indian, Portuguese, and British colonial influences blend into something uniquely Indian Ocean. It’s tough to tell where one culture stops and another begins, or which person belongs to which group, or even if such concerns matter at all.
There are auto-rickshaws plying the streets (called tuk-tuks here), people in every variety of Islamic garb from skullcaps and robes for men, to scarves and full purdah for womenÂ—or no special dress at all. With its colonial architecture, palm trees, blue ocean, and cultural melange, Mombasa seems a lot like Pondicherry. The tourist development is elsewhere, so the place is surprisingly Â“local,Â” and the people are friendly. In the late afternoons the streets are full of schoolkids in uniforms. Mildew grows on the yellow and white apartment blocks, with laundry drying outside.
I took a tour of the Old Town and have posted some tourist snaps below. It’s the poorer quarter of the city but the most interesting, with architectural flourishes from all the contributing cultures. My guide was Mahir Mohammed (who also goes by Ali Mohammed and Ali Baba). Photography wasn’t particularly welcome in Old Town, but he smoothed most things over. The issue seemed to be that I would make money off the photos and was therefore exploiting people commercially, so I didn’t take many pictures or press the issue. At one point, we were in a narrow lane looking at a coop of pigeons. Ali was telling me about them and clucking at them (I wasn’t photographing), and a woman came out of the house and yelled at him. We walked on. He told me she was accusing him of using her pigeons for his business.
The Indian presence is very strong in Mombasa. All the restaurants serve more than one Indian dish (curry, biryani, somosas, chapatis, etc.). There are Hindu temples and Ismaili mosques. Well-off Indians own shops in town and estates on the ocean, but there are poor people in the mix in Old Town. My hotel, a colonial-era three-star with mosquito nets, a fan, and a dipper in the bathroom, has Preity Zinta calendars at the reception desk and behind the bar. (There are also a large number of a craggy old single European men in shorts, and this is the tourist off season, which makes me wonder how Mombasa figures in the sex trade.)
Some tourist snaps from Old Town and the rest of Mombasa are on the flip. Continue reading