Mombasa Damu

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Every city, every town has its own signature which hangs around it like a body scent; something so descriptive of it that there is never one without the other- absolute inter-relation. The people born of that land identify themselves with the qualities of their home and in more ways than one society anticipates that they live up to them.

Take for instance New York. Not that I’ve ever been there but they have their trademark yellow cabs. Rome has its old buildings which have a rich history engraved on each rock; lovely places like the Colosseum where the gladiators used to butcher each other (if the movies i have watched are anything to go by).

There is always a certain sound, figure of speech or gesture that goes along with the particular towns. It would be very natural to flash the West side sign if say you met a rapper from the US who hails from that side or call someone Ogah if he comes from Nigeria. You would ask a chap from Swaziland about the reed dance, i donno about you but i would. I would want to know many things about it, like its cultural connotation and why having girls walk around and dance semi naked is considered cool. How do the men manage to keep their sanity while all these (what should i call them?) are being flashed around?

…oh, and why King Mswati has to marry aaaallll those women, goodness; i wouldn’t know whether to pity or envy him!

Now, allow me to bring you back to our lovely city of Mombasa.


Mombasa Skyline

If say you got hijacked by, sijui, a bunch of aliens and they disappeared with you to wherever, keeping you alive for years and you do not age (they give you Viagra looking tablets to halt the aging process). Then they discovered you are good for nothing (just saying) and decided that instead of returning you peacefully back to earth, the best approach would be to drop your ass from up above. You survive all those elements in the atmosphere (am no scientist but i hear there’s some really dangerous eish in the atmosphere), you cut through the clouds screaming like a little girl, and you come tumbling down and fall (fortunately) through the roof of a mattress manufacturing company in the middle of nowhere, like there are no buildings or establishments in sight.

Let’s say, for the sake of the main topic here, that the place your ass lands on is Mombasa; what would make you know that it is Mombasa?

What would you have missed about Mombasa?

What makes Mombasa what it is?

Are there any particular sounds or words that you know are descriptive of our beautiful city which you would miss and want to hear again.

It might be the music; the ever smooth Taarab beat which everyone ties to the Coast. Or maybe the dressing- the Thobes (kanzus) kangas and buibuis. These are apparels that are closely associated to the coastal people and you will find hotel staff wearing them when they have those Swahili theme nights, just to give the guests that ‘Swahili feeling’.

But what really describes a place, a city, other than its sites and physical symbols? Is there something more to it? Like if you were to pluck the ocean, the sites, the dressing from our beautiful city, what would be left to describe it? Would someone still point to it and call it Mombasa even after it is stripped bare of all the physical features we know?



If, say, after we pluck Mombasa like a Guinea Fowl and replace the contents with whatever is descriptive of Nairobi- Times Towers, KICC, Westgate,Sarit Centre, bring Westlands to Mtwapa, Runda to Nyali- would it still be our lovely Mombasa?

My guess it still would be; there is more to a place than just its physicality and land marks.

What makes Mombasa is the people- you and me and a whole lot of others whom, whether by design or default etch their footprints daily on Mombasa’s spongy back. People who cross the ferry together, get rained on as their turn to board. People who greet each other as if they are childhood pals even if they come from totally different backgrounds- their only connection being Mombasa. People who gather around newspaper stalls discussing politics in great detail and vivid colors.


My Mombasa

People, not landmarks, make a place. Remove all the landmarks and leave the people and the place will still retain its value.

So what is it that the people of Mombasa have that make them descriptive of the place that without them Mombasa would not be?

It could be their generosity and togetherness. Years back when i first came here i was struck by the generosity and openness that people exhibited; it was unlike anything i was used to while in Nairobi. Back in Nairobi you can live next door to someone and there is a likelihood that you will talk very less. Maybe just the blithe nods, nothing more.

Well, in Nairobi you may know a neighbour not by the mutuality of being human but the common occurrence of certain vices. I used to have a neighbour and the only time we talked was in the wee hours between Friday and Sunday when he mistook my door for his. I had to remind him every other time at three in the morning that his door is number five right after mine, and it’s only after i threatened to whip his drunk ass that he quit!

In Mombasa people take time to know each other. You meet in a Waiyanak joint and after the kawaida banter you will order drinks for each other. You will know each other by virtue of sharing the same barber or supporting the same EPL team.

People here care about their neighbours and should one lose a loved one, we all mourn together. We assist each other any way we can. It is a very common occurrence in Nairobi that a neighbour dies and you only know of it when you see strangers donning solemn faces stream in. Or if he was from Nyanza you will hear a lot of wailing!

When visitors come to Mombasa, be it for a few day or months, the warmth of the people rubs on them. They pick on the Coastal accent and  even if one might think that they intend to visit again because of the beach, deep inside it’s never about it….

I mean, what’s the beach without the people who are born of it and who will readily save upcountry chaps from drowning?





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Abu Amirah

Abu-Amirah is a Mombasa-based writer whose story “The swahilification of Mutembei” was shortlisted for the Writivism 2016 short story prize. He is currently working on getting his first short-story anthology published.