Sure, we all tend to exaggerate the magnificence and charm of some of our past – it could be an era, a place, a relationship…but I’ve got to say growing up in East Africa was truly a God sent gift. No doubt that if you’re one of us, you will understand.
If you’ve read my blog before, you’d know that I’m particularly fond of East African introspection. There’s just something about walking through its streets that provoke the memories from the corners of my mind. When I was a little girl, I was too preoccupied with the rest of the world to notice the ones closer to me. I would rather imagine far away places, fascinated by the people who inhabited them. As I grew older, I began to immerse myself more and more in the world and it’s people. It was then that I began to realize that there is something oddly satisfying about returning to a place that remains fairly unchanged, only to find ways in which you appreciate it from a dynamic shift in context and perception.
Having said that, over the last few months I’ve been exploring the island of Mombasa from along the East African coast on some projects. It’s one of the world’s oldest spaces continuously inhabited for 1,500 years, putting it in the same league as Delhi, Baghdad, Cairo, Rome and London. Whilst Mombasa isn’t unfamiliar to me, in this piece, I attempt to paint a more holistic picture of what life on this island is truly like. Well, besides the pretty boutique villas and resorts that earn it its tourist hot-spot status.
For starters, whilst minimalist and simplistic living have trended massively in our recent world, there has always been something wonderfully peaceful about life on an island. It feels like contentment, like a breeze of calmness on your skin. In much the same way, Mombasa is warm, uncomplicated and welcoming. Not everything is perfect that’s for sure, but life is so much easier when its simpler and the sun is shining.
Through all the chaos, passing faces and places in life, all the thrills and lows of everything, here’s a quick round up of a few things life on Mombasa island has reminded me of.
Mom’s food and a bottle of nostalgia
Never under-estimate the power of good food. An island with an incredible mix of culture can never be devoid of this. So naturally, Swahili cuisine is yum. It reflects the long history of conquest and occupation along the east coast – by the Portuguese, the Arabs and the British. Add the mix of Arabic and Indian influences from immigrants and traders and the result is unique and really tasty dishes. However, I’m not talking about good food in this particular way.
I’m talking more about good food that evokes comfort or brings forth pleasant memories. I’m talking the kind like eating Buyu [baobab fruit candy made from sugar and food colour paste]. It just wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t stain your lips afterwards. Or the Kahawa [coffee] and Halwa [addictive sticky sweet treat] late night rendez-vous, where I’ve enjoyed better conversations with street kids hustling for cash than I’ve had with degree and title-mongers in corporate boardrooms. Alongside dimly lantern-lit stalls along the roadside I’ve learnt about the fickleness of life.
I’m taking about the organic fruit you would quickly trade-in for the processed apples, pears and cherries bought off premium retail store shelves. This kind is bought straight from a vendor cart. Exotic fruit and juicy jam tomatoes for less than a dollar a kilo from the open air market. Where to the left, mounds of garbage leak dark juices that seep down the narrow streets and straight into your nostrils.
Salah is better than sleep
A lone voice rings out in the sleepy streets at 4:15 am every morning, sounding right into my bedroom window. This is the muezzin, the first Muslim call to prayer. Over the next few minutes, at least three other voices of varying tunefulness join in – distorting the entire sound of the Azan – probably jolting everyone that can hear it from a peaceful sleep. Don’t get me wrong, the call to prayer can be absolutely beautiful to wake up to if it wafts over in soft and musical tones. It gives a sense of security and a comfort of being at home safe, tucked away in your bed. Also, ordinarily, the Azan lasts for about two minutes, besides in my neck of the woods. Here the entire prayer is conducted over loudspeaker. Of course the neighbors have complained about various things such as aural assaults, but for me I’d much rather look at it this way. There’s been times in my life where I’ve traded the call to prayer for the sounds of police, ambulance sirens and at one point an entire dog orchestra. We lived in this complex once where all the neighborhood dogs would howl in different pitches and tones – all at once – for a period of about five minutes.
But Alice, why would you leave wonderland?
Whenever I tell people about Mombasa, they look at me wide-eyed and say “oh wow, it sounds like paradise”. Even though this is true and they are right to an extent, a part of me knows this is not why I love the island-style life here. I love it because it teaches me how to find humour in the most bizarre situations. For instance, it’s here that I’ve heard of tour and safari companies being marketed as “mouth-watering”. Hey guys, we guarantee you a mouth-watering tour experience! Hmm.. I think I’ll pass..
It’s also here that I’ve seen three people on a public beach sharing a floater designed for one with everything seeming completely normal, the chatter of little kids basking in the sun resounding. In the distance, older siblings are being pushed in plastic toy cars by youth who are struggling to find jobs. This is what they do to earn some extra cash. I’m told they spend entire days in this sort of bending position just pushing, so that hundreds of kids can take turns to experience the joy of ‘driving a car’. Never mind that the steering wheel is being turned in the complete opposite direction to which the little car is headed. I laughed so hard, yet felt so grateful for life in that moment. It reminded me that the spirit of the island lifestyle is more about what you do for others than what you don’t have.
I love this island-style life because it has lessons of patience, despite the degree of adversity. Kind of like how its grey old buildings have stood out like solid statements of architectural defiance against the test of time. Actually, more than a sleepy town with aged buildings where life is characterized by a palpable slowness and apathy — a ghost of pre- and post colonial era glamour. From a balcony, I’ve watched people counting ships by the harbour, hands fumbling with a sense of urgency. Pulling open packets of freshly made cassava chips wrapped in old newspaper cuttings drenched in tamarind sauce, licking through the mushy parts where the printing ink has began to seep. From the same balcony, I’ve seen a billionaire sit outside a temple with his ‘crew’ and various people take turns telling him their stories of hardship. Every evening a mother has money for monthly groceries and a little boy a chance to go to school. Distracting me, the sea breeze comes through with the distinct aroma of skewered meat, tuk-tuk fumes and Arabian oud perfume sprayed by mysterious women clad in black bui-buis, giggling in unison. Next door, children fly kites on the balconies of high-rise buildings and others feed a day old rice to crows.
Ah, then there’s the sea. Escaping the tropical scorching heat is an absolute nightmare. With global warming, the temperatures in the tropics are shocking! Everyday is above 30 degrees Celsius. So the sea definitely helps to cool you down, but do not be fooled. It’s only for a short while. For now, your ocean dip has left you sticky all over until you find a sweet water shower [not the usual salty one] – but who cares when you turn around and you have the bluest sea [Diani beach has been voted one of the best in the world], whitest sand and the most crimson of sunsets. You’ll just have to endure it all because it’s Mombasa!
And who knows, perhaps one day these might be the things I will feel most nostalgic about my time here, but then again, no matter how much technology advances or the world progresses – the notion of nostalgia remains an essential human condition.
Images shot in collaboration with a7mad_aob.