Saturday, August 28, 2010



Everywhere around me there is rubble, weathered walls and columns of coral rag and coral lime - buildings at various stages of decrepitude. It is like a real-time jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. I soon get into the game and fill the gaps with imaginary fragments. Thus, an arch opens a doorway into notional rooms, and other remnants such as a fluted pillar, a cistern, wells, and latrine spaces hint at dwellings, mosque, tombs and even a palace. You get the impression of a township razed to ground, and then again, it appears as though it is actually rising from the Earth. Even though it is noon, it feels like twilight, as climbers and lianas vie with tall baobabs and tamarind trees to find roothold.  The muggy coastal air accentuates the stillness of the place and makes us feel hemmed in, in a rather eerie sort of a way. We – I, my son and our girl-guide, Pili – are the only intruders into this lost walled­-town, for the moment. Standing amidst Gede (or Gedi) Ruins, nearly 100 kms North of Mombasa, in Kenya, we are trying to listen to the secrets cradled over four centuries. 


As we enter the Inner Wall, which was the preserve of the privileged, the first structure to greet us is a tombstone bearing an epitaph, faded by passage of time; the inscription at the bottom is still clear, it is a date - 1399 A.D. This “dated tomb” provides vital clue to the calendar of events in Gedi, or Kilimani (Swahili for “on top of a hill”), as it was called then, when it was a bustling settlement hosting traders and artisans. The population of few thousands comprised Arabs from Oman who came here in the 13th century and mingled and assimilated with the Bantu tribe. Incidentally, it was this Arab-African fusion that gave rise to the Swahili people of the East African coast. British historian James Kirkman, who has researched the ruins extensively, has noted that even in its heydays, Gedi seems to have flourished in obscurity nestled as it was in a coastal forest and finds no mention in any historical records! Archaeologists have excavated and painstakingly pieced together Chinese blue porcelain bowls, glazed earthenware and clay pottery indicating that trade flourished and was carried much beyond Gedi’s immediate shores. Some of these finds have been preserved in the Gede Museum, nearby, but a lot of them have been lost too, spirited away by “curio hunters” or simply poor locals with the idea of making a fast buck.

Climbing up the rickety flights of a tree house I have been warned to skip, I make it atop a century-old baobab to take in a bird’s eye-view of the Ruins. Strewn over two acres are dilapidated structures which I try to construct in my mind’s eye in many different ways, but it needs the expertise of Kirkman, as projected through his guidebook, to give me that unbroken picture. Right below is the Palace - where the tribal king (as one written source, says) or the Sultan (as Pili tells me) would have held court - with its reception room, audience courts, apartments and an Annexe doubling as women’s quarter. Behind the Palace is the Great Mosque, chief among the many, nine, to be precise, that dot the two-acre excavated area of the 45-acre township.

From that vantage position, the perspective changes and I am actually taken back in time. I can imagine the Jumma prayers being held and the Imam preaching from the pulpit, the Sultan is holding court as the women prattle about everyday things in their quarter. For nearly four centuries, life must have continued thus, with its unsung individual stories of laughter and sorrow, of meetings and bereavements, until one day, somewhere in the 17th century, the town was inexplicably abandoned. Theories explaining the desertion range from invasion of a cannibalistic tribe to spread of diseases, but other more plausible reasons are also presented. Over a period of time the ocean receded (which it has; while Gedi was on the coast earlier, it is now well inland), subsequently the water table dipped and the water sources dried up. This is evident from the numerous dry wells of Gede, which, sadly and ironically, have accumulated a litter of plastic water bottles discarded by unthinking tourists with no thirst or taste for history or heritage. Another explanation goes that the residents fled from the advancing Galla tribe from Somalia. That Gede or Gedi is a Galla word, meaning “precious” says something for this explanation.

But heritage conservation is not a strong urge on part of the authorities concerned. At many places, the coral blocks are cemented incongruously with concrete giving it a feel of a modern-day substandard construction in progress. Vandalism has taken its toll too. A large swathe of the Ruins still lies waiting to be excavated, especially between the inner and outer wall which housed the middle class population.

The day is wearing on; I thank Pili who accompanied us for more than two hours gamely, despite her Ramdan fast, giving in to our demands of taking detours from the charted path to explore the precincts within the outer wall. As twilight sets in and it is time to depart, we leave the place to its rightful inhabitants – the Sykes monkeys and the elephant shrew.

Note: Msafari is a Kiswahili word for "travel". 

Also read: Mombasa Msafari - Part II, Old Town

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Forest of Small Things

 This time it is a walk on an "Elephant Trail" of a primeval forest inland off Mombasa coast. It is not a planned tour and it is almost by chance that my son and I saunter into Arabuko-Sokoke forest on our way back from Gedi Ruins, what was a four-century old town. 

Peter, the forest ranger is accompanying us with bare essentials of a stick (not a club, forget a rifle) under the darkened canopy of dense woodland. We drive some distance into the jungle, park our car on the deserted path, lock it to keep baboons and monkeys from mischief, and set out on foot to unearth forest life. The car looks vulnerable - abandoned and out of place. I idly wonder what if an African elephant were to get too curious about it. Peter assures us about the safety of the car and herds us on to the dirt track which is getting narrower hemmed in as it is with tall trees and lianas.

Lanky Peter walks with a stoop looking surreptitiously to the left and right, up and down, stops suddenly and moves on. His antennas are working taking in the sweep of the forest - for sounds and sights - which for us is a soundless blur of twigs and leaves. This is a regular route of Arabuko’s resident African elephants. Unlike its Asian counterpart, the African elephant has never been tamed or domesticated adding to its “wildness quotient”. I ask Peter if it is not dangerous to come face to face with one. His reply is an amused, indulgent smile. We simply follow in his wake trusting in him completely; we have no choice now that we have crossed the Rubicon. We desperately try to mute our footfalls crunching dry twigs and leaves so as not to attract unwanted attention.  Suddenly, Peter turns to us dramatically and whispers conspiratorially: "Elephant shh...", much to our consternation.

Peter keeps his gaze to the ground and this “elephant shh…” routine is repeated several times, threatening to make nervous wrecks of us. And yet no elephant emerges from the woodwork. While we do hope that we see an African elephant in flesh and blood, we also pray that none crosses our path. We have heard of freak incidents involving tourists and elephants in Mt. Kenya and elsewhere. Peter insists that elephants are very shy and gentle creatures, but our urban minds fail to comprehend this. An hour into the walk the elephants that Peter senses elude us; we are getting impatient and skittish.

It turns out that, all along, Peter has been pointing out the pint-sized “elephant shrew” scurrying on ground, perhaps into its hole, even before we could set eyes on it!

A word about the “elephant shh…rew”! The Golden-rumped Elephant shrew is a fascinating mousy animal that traces its ancestry back to nearly 100 million years. The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, as this ancient insectivorous mammal is more closely related to an elephant or a hyrax rather than a shrew, as zoologists categorize it. This discrepancy has been sought to be rectified by zoologists by giving it a local Bantu name, sengi. The Golden-rumped sengi is endemic to African scrub forests and is a highly endangered species.

What was happening here was that every time Peter spotted an elephant shrew foraging in leaf litter and indicated it to us we missed it due to our obsession with elephants. By the time we realize our mistake and train our sights on the forest floor, it is too late. The fast-footed sengi, elusive and shy, as well, gives us the slip time and again.

Arabuko-Sokoke’s threatened endemic bird species - Sokoke’s pipit, Sokoke’s Scops owl or Amani sunbird – too seem elusive as we are on an afternoon walk when bird activity is at its lowest. And we are glad that we do not cross paths with a boomslang or a green mamba. But we see few psychedelic fungi and innumerable trees and plant species. Peter shows us Antlions on the sandy stretches of Mida Creek where we end at a tree-top to get a bird’s eye-view of the forest. So though we do not see elephants, elephant shrew or rare birds, we learn about the small five, for the first time. And these are the Elephant shrew, Rhino beetle, Antlion, Leopard tortoise and Buffalo weaver. Can you guess why they are called the small five!

Savannas with their Big Five may be the quintessence of Africa, but coastal forests such as Arabuko are a reminder that the African continent was once covered in tropical forests. Arabuko-Sokoke is rich in biodiversity of endangered flora and fauna. It is a  UNESCO Biosphere Reserve - a status given for its conservation efforts brought through community involvement.
As I step out of the forest and out of the time warp, I find myself repeating this line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, quite out of context: “And here were forests as ancient as the hills…”