Photo Courtesy: Nila Shah via Pinterest
Old town. That’s how they call the area I was raised in. I think it was named so because it resisted modernization that occurred in the other parts of the city. Vintage buildings with wooden, carved balconies and brown, rusted roof sheets stand adamantly showing the glory and beauty of the past. The architecture reflecting the merging of various civilizations as the port of Mombasa welcomed foreigners from all over the globe, some of whom were so mesmerized by Mombasa that they never thought of going back home. The dilapidated buildings that stood the test of time remind me of an old grandmother who still insists on doing her house chores by herself despite her advanced age and withering strength. The mighty fort Jesus stands tall and firm silently holding within it the history of generations that passed. The grand, bronze, kettle with the handle-less traditional white coffee cups with red and green decorations at the roundabout outside the fort, announce the love of coffee. The arrays of curio shops disclose the frequent visits by tourists (at least once upon a time). The narrow alleys between houses make conversations inside the houses less private; alley ways that are bound to confound an outsider. All these give my hometown its unique identity.
Personally, I feel it was the best place to grow up in. I remember the swarm of tourists on the streets as my friends and I walked from madrasa to our houses. We kept on covering our faces with our tiny jilbabs whenever the tourists wanted to take our pictures because our innocent, naïve minds were then convinced that if they took our picture, they were going to sell us once they got back to their home countries! Then, my friends and I were annoyed by the tourists and wished they departed because of the constant hiding from the cameras we had to do and how they dressed scantily, our religious young selves ready to give them daawah if given the chance to. But now, tourists have become so scarce that seeing a group of them once in a blue moon makes me happy.
Once I got home from school or madrassa, I’d quickly change my uniform, ask for ‘pesa ya saa kumi’ and off I’d head out to play with my friends. We would play two to three different games then buy viazi karai and eat. We still had enough time to squeeze in two more games before it was time to go back home. If the Maghreb adhan found me outside the house I would get punished and one such punishment was enough to make me an expert at telling the time by just looking at the sky. I wonder whether we had more barakah then, because five shillings would fill our stomachs and one hour or so was so much that we could play to our fill. Talk of magurumati, kode, lengalenga and some few other unofficial games we came up with on the spot. Was it blessings or was it just that to a small child, everything around them seems bigger and grand? I remember once meeting a 16 year old sister of my friend and getting filled with awe at how mature she was. I’m now in my twenties and I still feel immature at times! Then the other day I visited a town I used to frequently visit in my childhood which I hadn’t visited in many years and I was surprised to find that the roads appeared shrunken. Places that I used to find very far as a child, I could now walk to in five minutes. Even though things are disproportionate to a child, I’m deeply convinced that we had more barakah then than we currently have.
As I grew older, the Kibokoni I grew up in started to change. I didn’t notice it then, but moving out of town made it visible to me. Houses that were once lively and full of sounds are now silent; the children have left. Those aunties and uncles whose voices were ubiquitous have gone quiet. You could hear them reminding kids deeply engrossed in gololi that it’s time for swalaah or they’ll be breaking a fight between youngsters in a loving way, “haifai kupigana kwani hamjui nyinyi ni ndugu? Haya mpe mkono mwenzako.” But now you rarely hear these voices. Some of them have passed on but most of them consciously chose to remain silent because children no longer heed advice from the adults. Morals are non-existent and the kids are ever ready with a handful of disrespectful replies that are bound to leave the elders’ jaws wide agape.
Most inner alleyways are in such a bad state due to lack of repair that walking on them without straining your ankle is a feat (Thank God most of the main paths are paved with cabros). Some quiet alleyways have been converted to dumpsites and some have been permanently shut. The black water jerry cans in handcarts have become an eyesore but we can’t do without them since most of the wells have become salty; too salty to differentiate the water from sea water. We have also clogged up the drainage canals with rubbish. You have to pray it doesn’t rain for more than half an hour or else you will get another island within Mombasa Island.
But all these are nothing compared to the alarming rise in insecurity which is secondary to drug abuse. Very young boys have gotten into gangs that terrorize the locals. What’s sad is that the people who rob and harm people are boys from the neighbourhood. People you probably studied with at some point. They have gotten so fearless to the point that they don’t bat an eyelid when they rob someone they know very well. They don’t even revere an imam or an old lady. No one seems safe from their mischief. It’s funny how I travel for a long distance from school back home with little fear. But the moment I arrive in Mombasa early in the morning, my heart starts beating a little faster as I board a tuktuk home. That is if I’m lucky enough to convince the tuktuk driver to take me to Kibokoni without refusing or overcharging me. My heart even beats faster as I walk for one minute from where I get dropped to the house and as I wait for the door to be opened. It’s the longest one minute I ever have to endure. I tell myself how ironical it’ll be if I get harmed at my doorstep while I managed to traverse over 500km without a scratch on my arm. As I greet my family with heavy breaths they think it’s from the stairs but it’s really from all the worrying I’ve been doing. It’s paradoxical how the more ‘mjamaa’ someone looks as I pass by a kichochoro, the more trepidation I have in my heart and I debate whether I should turn back the way I came. It doesn’t help when the person insists, “oya sista pita usiogope.” Man I’ve got trust issues! Perhaps the situation is not as dire as I make it to be but I have a hard time taming my overthinking mind.
I wonder whether all these changes that I’ve noticed really took place in the course of my growing up or whether some things have always been the way they are now only that my young mind didn’t register them as I was busy enjoying the carefree life of a child. I wonder a lot! I wonder why the place was named Kibokoni in the first place. I wonder who named it. I wonder whether the name is starting to have an effect because viboko vyatembea! I even wonder when I’ll stop wondering.
It’s not all gloomy though. I have also noticed a positive change. More youth are waking up and daring to take steps not taken before. Youth are venturing into entrepreneurship and community service. Various youth organisations are popping up every day. Libraries are coming up and tourists have started to resurface. The town looks bright with the new colours unique to old town different from the rest of Mombasa. I see Mombasa as a whole changing and the change is being spearheaded by the youth. Youth who see something wrong in the society and they get up to change it rather than lament about it helplessly. I’m still not sure what my role is in the change but I hope I’ll be part of the positive change.
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