My first stop in Kenya was the coastal town of Mombasa. I spent just enough time in the city to sip some coffee, explore a fort constructed by the Portuguese, and connect with Kenya's history in the World Wars.
Mombasa was earlier called Kisiwa Cha Mvita, Swahili for “Island of War.” This name is fitting considering that the area was contested for centuries between different powers. The first Europeans to reach Mombasa were the Portuguese. After capturing the city on three separate occasions they finally built Fort Jesus between 1593 and 1596 to protect their possession. The Portuguese lost control of the fort a century later to Omani attackers. Control of the fort shifted many more times between outside powers until the British took ultimate control in the 19th century. The fort is now preserved for visitors and contains a small museum detailing the development of Mombasa and the Kenyan coast over the last millennium.
The Old Town surrounding Fort Jesus similarly reflects the many outside groups that have exerted influence in the area. Though compact, the area is dense with narrow streets and alleys often creating an unpredictable journey.
Old Town’s winding paths create some insulation from the chaos of the nearby main streets of Kenya’s second largest city. In keeping with a trend throughout Africa, public transport in Mombasa has character. A mix of tuk tuks and minibus share taxis known locally as matatus exist to ferry residents from one location to another while constantly honking and hollering for riders. The matatus in particular stand out for their bright, unique, and incongruous ornamentation. Common decorative themes include English Premier League soccer teams, American rappers, and random phrases. If Mombasa’s fleet were to have a mythical origin story, it would contain a bacchanal orgy involving an assortment of vehicles conducted to a soundtrack of Rick Ross while Manchester United played in the background.
Proving that undue excitement for European royalty extends across the continents, a pair of metal tusks erected to commemorate the 1956 visit of Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, to Mombasa is a major landmark along Moi Avenue. The tusks are notable enough to be featured on the reverse of the 50 shilling banknote.
Tucked away a few blocks from Mombasa’s landmark tusks, is an easy to miss cemetery. An inconsistent mix of grave areas exists within this larger cemetery. In several patches are the neatly maintained, orderly graves of civil servants and war dead. The fallen from two World Wars are dispersed across several parcels. They function as a poignant reminder of the just how global the World Wars were. While campaigns in the Pacific and Europe, and North Africa to a lesser extent, are well remembered and documented, fighting in East Africa is generally ignored with regards to both wars. World War I had great consequences for East Africa with the expulsion of Germans from their colonial possessions in modern Rwanda, Burundi, and mainland Tanzania. This despite East Africa being one area in which the Germans could claim military success over the British, largely thanks to the innovative techniques of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. In World War II British-led forces again fought in the region, this time expelling Italian forces from modern Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. These campaigns are mostly overlooked, but their consequences are still felt. Somali nationalism and divisions in modern Somalia can in part be explained by events during World War II. Physical reminders of German rule exist, such as the Lutheran church near the port in Dar es Salaam. These graves in Mombasa are another physical expression of these historical events and show on a micro level the human cost. However, they only express a narrow angle of the story. By far, those that bore the burden of battle and suffering in East Africa during the World Wars were Africans. On either side, Africans made up the mass of troops and were injured and died in the greatest numbers. They are the most marginalized of participants and their stories have continued to go largely untold. A mostly ignored monument recognizing the efforts of native askaris is in place along Jomo Kenyatta Avenue. Nonetheless, it seems that important historical narratives remain disregarded even as hints are spread across the physical space.
Mombasa was a worthy introduction to Kenya. Featuring the amenities and liveliness of a city, but not so spread out to be overwhelming, it is worth a day or two. Most visitors end up using it as a springboard to nearby beaches, while I used it as a stopover before the train to Nairobi.
Visiting Mombasa also means that my overland journey has now taken me the distance that Roland sprayed Van Owen across Africa. Buses may not be the most pleasant way to travel, but they beat being carried by bullets.