25th, 2004 -> The Steamy Swahili Coast: kenya
Most Kenyans take the bus from the capital,
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
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
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.
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