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January 25th, 2004 -> The Steamy Swahili Coast: kenya

Most Kenyans take the bus from the capital, Nairobi, to Mombasa, the country's port city on the Indian Ocean. The buses run frequently and offer various levels of service, while the train is slower and more expensive. The colonial-era rails and rolling stock are fitfully maintained; the carriages rattle and sway for thirteen hours. All the same, few tourists can resist the opportunity to ride on The Lunatic Express.

The nickname is as old as the rails themselves. When originally conceived, British engineers and politicians thought the idea so absurd that it could only be the inspiration of madmen. The rails would eventually stretch from the coast to Kampala, Uganda, crossing through malarial swamps, waterless plains, the Equator, and the Great Rift Valley - more than 1000 kilometers, teeming with dangerous wildlife. The sleepers (which sit below the rails) had to be made of steel, because termites would devour timber sleepers.

Construction began in 1896, with the work mostly supplied by 10,000 lower-caste 'coolies' imported from British India. These Indians and their progeny would have a major impact on British East Africa and later, Kenya and Uganda. They set up small shops that grew into major enterprises, dominating trade. Some used their wealth to curry favor with politicians, leading to even bigger business deals. Like the Jews of Europe, or the Chinese of Asia, the Indians of East Africa were almost universally reviled by the locals. "We have no problems with the white people." a Nairobi safari tout told me, "But the Indians treat us like dirt."

By 1899, the rails had reached a waterhole that the local Maasai called Nyrobi. There the British built a major railway works to prepare for the engineering assault on the Great Rift Valley, a 1000-meter high escarpment that lay just to the west. Kenya's modern capital grew up along this railway station. Soon, mercantilists, government officials and adventurers were riding the Lunatic Express from the coast all the way to Kisumu, on the shores of the massive Lake Victoria (which had relatively recently been proven to be the source of the White Nile).

Now the Lunatic Express was an anachronism in motion; a colonial inheritance filled with tourists who delighted in the stewards with their tatty uniforms, and the dinner service replete with tarnished silver and chipped china, all bearing the Kenya Railways logo. After dinner, passengers are warned to lock their cabin doors and stay inside until dawn; robberies are not uncommon. I am sure I was not the only passenger who found it difficult to sleep with this admonition in mind.

The Kenyan and Tanzanian coastline is often called the Swahili Coast. This is a bit redundant as the word Swahili derives from the Arabic word 'sahel,' which means coast. Thus, Swahili came to describe the people (Waswahili) and the language (Kiswahili) that developed along the east African seaboard: an admixture of African, Arabic and Indian cultures. For many hundred years, the coasts of modern Kenya and Tanzania were controlled by Arabs from Oman. The Omani Arabs had themselves ejected the Portuguese, who had controlled almost the whole of the east African coast from 1500-1700. While the majority of Kenya's people are Christian, Muslims dominate the coastal region.

We were headed to the coast for a bit of sun and fun. After our arrival in Mombasa, we planned to go to Watamu, a resort famous for its beaches and scuba diving. After Watamu, we were hoping to catch a bus to the northern coast, from where we could catch a ferry to Lamu Island. Lamu, like Zanzibar, had been an Omani sultante. Unlike Zanzibar, Lamu's small size and distance from the largest mainland ports had left it increasingly isolated from trade. It was now a grottier, but more 'authentic' Swahili island.

The prostitutes and gigolos started work early on the Swahili Coast. They lingered at the edge of Watamu beach and linked arms with elderly tourists having their morning walks. In the evening, all the restaurants were filled with young blacks dining with older whites (mostly Italians and Germans). It all made sense. The earlier the locals started negotiations, the greater chance of scoring a free meal in addition to payments for normal services.

The beaches of Watamu were so beautiful that we had to quickly recalibrate our list of Best Beaches We've Seen. Odd coral islands poked up through pellucid water and sand bars appeared and disappeared with the tides. The main beach was broken here and there by an ancient reef, and secluded beaches could be found nestled between arms of jagged black coral. How could it be that we had never heard of this place before? We were delighted that we had decided to come to the coast - and we hadn't even been diving yet.

The water went dark, and I looked towards the surface for an explanation. I was almost forty feet deep, but the dive boat's hull seemed right above me. Confusion transformed into wonder as I realized I was staring at the underside of a whale shark - the world's largest fish. The gentle plankton eater was no threat to us, but the size of the creature took some getting used to. At fifteen meters (45 feet), he was long as we were deep. He may have weighed as much as 10 tons. Though his tail fin moved slowly, his power and sleek shape meant that we had to kick powerfully just to keep up. The myriad white spots on his dark gray topside were an inner-space star field. He turned briefly and gave us a view of his wide mouth. It was amazing. And then we saw a second, even larger one at the end of the dive.

Watamu had its share, but nearby Malindi had been completely overrun by the Italians. Older women with dark glasses and skin the color of smoked salmon gossiped at outdoor cafes. Short, balding men gesticulated as they argued with younger black women. According to a local, the Italians had migrated south from the beaches of Somalia when the security situation there became untenable. They had bought up most of the land and hotels and turned them into exclusively Italian resorts. "All Italians know of Malindi," said an Italian missionary that we met later in Nairobi.

"We call them the boring people," an Indian tour agent told us, "They come here with everything. Italian food. Italian wine. They have their own hotels, their own cars. They don't take taxis or go to local restaurants. No money comes into the community. We just shine their shoes."

Lamu Island, once a rich entrepot of Arab traders, had quickly become an economic backwater as: 1) Zanzibar increased in importance, 2) the British and Germans took over control of East Africa, and 3) the slave trade was abolished. Stately old buildings, with airy arcades and rooftop terraces, sit bunched together by the shore. Everything is in an advanced state of decay, save a few homes purchased and renovated by foreigners. There is only one car, and even it can only travel a short distance. All narrow alleys and sharp corners, Lamu Town is only suitable for pedestrian and donkey traffic.

We met a Kenyan woman who had visited Lamu many times, and she was kind enough to let us piggy-back on her local knowledge. With the help of a one-eyed property 'broker,' Cathy had quickly located a breezy three-story house deep within Lamu Town's labyrinthine alleys. Within hours of our arrival at Lamu Town, we were sailing in a dhau (the impossibly romantic, lateen-rigged local sail boat) to Shela Beach. We walked past stunning, multi-tiered beach mansions to a long, white beach. Across the turbulent, kilometer-wide strait was Manda Island.

Lamu and Shela town were only miles apart, but a gulf of centuries yawned between them. In Shela, chic resorts - like Peponi's - charged hundreds of dollars per person per night. The mansions of millionaires and European royalty towered nearby; one could be rented for the tidy sum of US$7000 per week (low season). Though I cannot be sure, I am reasonably sure that Princess Stephanie of Monaco walked by us as we swam off Shela beach.

Lamu Town's alleyways, meanwhile, are redolent with more than history. Drainage runnels, lined with clumps of algae, carry water and excreta to the ocean, filling the air with a sickening odor that one never quite gets used to. Even the breezy waterfront suffers fetid blasts of unsavory provenance. For fresh air and clean water, tourists must tread a scorching, one-hour path or charter a dhau to Shela Beach. Still, many people fall in love with Lamu Town, and we could certainly understand the attractions: a slow pace of life, amazing food, a nearby beach. These are, in general, the attractions of the Swahili coast.