Saturday, November 26, 2011


If Gede is time standing still, tending backwards, then Old Town is time carried forward in a past-present continuum. This becomes particularly evident from where I am standing - at a junction where four strands of Kenya’s historic past meet. On my left is the 16th century citadel, Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese; behind me is the colonial (British) Mombasa Club; and to the right is the entry point to the Old Arab Town that boasted sizeable Indian population and influence when it sprung up by the East African coast of Mombasa around 18th century. The junction, itself, a traffic island, is an oddity as it immortalizes, not a person, but a legendary institution. A giant golden coffee pot stands in tribute to a ritual from the hoary past, of people that cherished its kahawa.

And here it is, in a macrocosm away from the hum of modern Mombasa, right next-door, that I rendezvous with Taibali Hamzali, an old-timer Old Town-er. An architect with a yen for heritage conservation, he has been working towards preserving the buildings and the ethos of Old Town, which is today a UNESCO heritage site. Brought up in its intimate and intricate bylanes and alleyways, there couldn’t have been a better guide, for me, today. As we step into the Old Town, it feels as though we have stepped into a film studio from yesteryears, and it may well have been a Bollywood tableau! Fragile, dainty single-storey houses with overhang balconies and balustrades, ornately carved doors and even Art Deco buildings momentarily confound me. Is this Kenya in Africa or am I in small-town India of the colonial era? Either way, I am excused. Because, this settlement which sprouted by the waterfront and grew organically, a century ago, is a rich amalgamation of the varietal peoples and their cultures - Arab-Omani, Indian, British - that touched its shores, not to forget the indigenous Swahili influence!

As we meander through the lanes flanked by heritage houses, coalesced into a colony, we come across the 16th century Mandhry Mosque, the oldest mosque in Mombasa, still in use. In the days of yore, its obelisk-like minaret could be seen from afar and served as a beacon to Arab dhows trawling the ocean waters, guiding them into the busy harbour and Old Port of Mombasa. “Old Town Mombasa grew as an Islamic trading post, and by the 1900s, finely-crafted stone buildings had been constructed along the main streets,” says Taibali. Standing by one such building - the Government Square by the Old Port, I take in the few vessels dotting the harbour. These are the “small coastal trading vessels” sailing to Zanzibar or Somalia, going by the information provided on the plaque. But in its heydays, when Mombasa was the entrepôt to East Africa, the harbour would have seen hundreds of ships as explorer Richard Burton observed in mid-19th century. Charles Miller in his book, The Lunatic Express, on the Uganda Railway brings alive Mombasa harbour in the opening pages, thus: “…great fleet of Afro-Oriental sailing vessels which were crammed into the claustrophobic Old Harbor, and which now seemed huddled about his own ship like a plague of waterborne locusts... For most part, these crafts were huge Arab dhows from Persian Gulf… but there were others, cargo lighters and flimsy dugouts, manned by Swahili and Bajuni boatmen who wore sarongesque kikois and seemed engaged in a shrieking contest.”

Old Town Alleyway 
Mandhry Mosque


Old Port over Mombasa coast
British colonial soldier stands guard

Further North, by the waterfront stands the majestic Leven House, the seat of erstwhile British colonial administration where missionaries such as Johann Krapf and explorers, John Speke and Richard Burton, stayed when they passed through onward to hinterland. Today, this renovated building is the office of the Mombasa Old Town Conservation Office, which is doing a fine job of preserving the past. 

As we wind and wend our way through ever-thinning pathways we are thoroughly awed by the fretwork balconies and the doors - mainly the teak doors with brass studs. Adorned with Arabic-Koranic inscriptions at the top and designs of floral vines twirling throughout the framework, these were crafted by Kutchi craftsmen. I am intrigued by one particular carved door as this is on the periphery wall and is sealed, incongruously, and must open into the ocean. Taibali reveals the ugly secret behind this closed door, a black mark on Africa's history. Slaves were shipped from this point to Zanzibar. 

Wares over carved doors
This door hides an ugly secret

The street-scene is enlivened by Swahili women in buibuis, and others flaunting boldly patterned khangas in floral prints. Little school-going girls, innocent and giggling, covered from head-to-toe, cut a cute picture in sync with the character of the old town. The men, in their kikois and kanzus go about their daily activities of trading and selling wares, which in today’s times translates as curios and souvenirs for the tourists. In fact, most of the buildings house curio shops on the ground floor, dealing in wood carvings and handicrafts, trademark of Kenya’s Akamba tribe.

 The only way to wash down such a time travel is to sit with a cuppa coffee and mull over its import. Jahazi Coffee House presents that perfect intellectual space as it is not just a café, as the name suggests, but a cultural meeting ground. Jahazi, Persian for ship, is a Swahili adoption, like other umpteen words that populate the KiSwahili tongue and are borrowed from the Persian parent or even Hindustani, for that matter. Bedecked with Lamu benches and coffee tables, Persian carpets and settees, it creates an ideal setting to idly watch the old world go by. And then, there is the kahawa, of course. Sitting by the painted glass window of Jahazi house, sipping coffee, a whisper from the past gently nudges me. I can see it all vividly now. At the end of the day’s work, men, women and children - Old Towners - sit by the ocean and unwind in the evening breeze. The coffee-seller carrying his trademark brass coffee pot with coals blazing in the brazier beneath peddles strong ginger-cinnamon brew to the strollers and idlers.

Even as I end the day at Mombasa’s Sailing Club, amid coconut palms and almond trees, I see local boys in red jerseys playing football in the historic precincts of Fort Jesus, which had witnessed many a battle between Omanis and Portuguese. As the ocean waves crash onto the fort’s façade the setting sun freezes the moment into a perfect picture - a pastiche of present peeled out of the past.

Old Town meets modern Mombasa by the harbour

Jahazi Coffee House
Coffee Pot immortalized

Also read: Mombasa Msafari - Part I 


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

There is Always Room for More

Nairobi mornings are the caw-caw of the pied crow, distinctly different from the call of the Indian house crow. This soundbyte, my earliest impression of a city and a country, kept me aware – without any doubt - of my new bearings, even if other things reminded me so much of home! I would see the crow on a tall post of the Norfolk pine, big bird with a white collar patch, unlike the smaller grey-black Indian one. This bird of the high altitudes and elevation did not deign to come down often and I saw it only in flight, rarely on  ground or on a low perch. Hence, after three years of my Kenya sojourn, I do not have a trophy photograph of the pied crow, but I am at it. 

A pastiche imprinted on mind, but one that eluded my constant companion camera again, is that of the Jacaranda blooms. Towering Jacaranda mimosifolia trees make an imposing arch, resembling a chapel doorway, in our residential complex. The spring, post long rains, sees the foliage transform into mauve florets overnight. Summer showers gently shake the tree tipping its bounty to the floor laying a bewitching tapestry underneath for us to tread on. The driveway, too, gets paved in molten mauve. On our evening walks, I would promise myself to go back the next morning to capture the violaceous carpet through the lens, but three seasons have come and gone and the desire has remained a yearning. 

The entire garden city of Nairobi wears a lovely lavender look come September. Many Kenya-based authors and poets – contemporary and classical - have written florid prose or odes in praise of  its blossoms. But for all that the jacaranda is an exotic tree transplanted from the shores of South America, smuggled in by intrepid explorers and enterprising colonists. It is the Spathodea campanulata, also called the Nandi flame (Nandi is a county in Western Kenya) that is truly a native beauty. I had seen this “African tulip” in Mumbai’s Naval area, a legacy of the Brits again, no doubt. The upturned orange-red bells earn the tree its other fetching name of 'Flame of the forest', immortalized by Elspeth Huxley in her book, “The Flame Trees of Thika”. Our embassy complex, like all colonial copycats, ironically, sports only the foreign jacaranda and pines, but not a single tulip tree.

I vowed to plant one in my garden, but haven’t got down to it  yet, not because of any lack of time or inclination. This idea just fell through; just one of those things. And interestingly, now that my African journey is coming to a close, I come across a Spathodea with mango-coloured blooms in Parklands-neighbourhood for the first time in my life. I have been searching for seedlings or saplings ever since with little success. I still have time, but I’m afraid it is a tad late in the day.

I have gone on safaris in almost all important game parks in Kenya, from Maasai Mara to our friendly neighbourhood Nairobi National Park (NNP). I have seen the Big Five and Small Five (well, almost), and all the mammals and critters in between. I wouldn’t get taken in much by the shibboleths, though; they are just fancy gimmick. The small five (corresponding to the Big Five) are elephant shrew, ant lion, leopard tortoise, buffalo weaver and the rhino beetle. I haven’t seen the rhino beetle yet, but I have seen the rest in the wild at Arabuko Sokoke  – a remnant of prehistoric forest -  near Mombasa. Surprisingly, of the Big Five, the rare and endangered black rhino proved difficult. Black rhinos are excruciatingly shy and sightings are rare;  I did see one in repose in an extra long-shot at the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, but hardly any in Kenya. Just two days back at NNP, I almost saw one but it did slink before I could blink!  

Something similar, but a reverse happenstance is the case of Kili – Mount Kilimanjaro, the symbol of African romanticism, the mountain Ernest Hemingway deified in the award-winning, “Snows of Kilimanjaro”. Kili’s famed snow-capped mantle opened up for a magnificent view on a clear morning when we were in Amboseli game park on the Kenya-Tanzania border. The rivulets of cream dripping down the table-top only whetted my appetite for more and I got another opportunity on a holiday in Tanzania. Four road trips to and fro parallel to the lone-standing tallest mountain in Africa – from Arusha to Moshi (the foothills of Kili) and back, and Arusha to Serengeti and back – failed to hype our chances of Kili-spotting. The mountain remained shrouded in clouds refusing to reveal itself! And I am only talking of ‘seeing’ the mountain, leave alone climbing it. We did not even consider doing Kili’s Coca-cola route, a 7-day basic level climb; we simply had no space for it in our itinerary.

In the final analysis, I did not do the (hot air) balloon safari over the savannas – an experience of a lifetime, but went on a night safari and also got to witness the eighth wonder of the world, the wildebeest migration. I will not get to see the African tulip flower in my garden, but was able to nurture African violets and African lilies. I did not get to fulfill my desire to do photo essays on the Baobab and Kenyan women in khangas, nevertheless through my Canon SX 100 I visited  trees, birds, mammals, landscapes, and people differently, deeply. I may not have engaged with the isolated and unadulterated Maasai or Samburu tribes, but had a sustained and intimate interaction with the locals of various other tribes that are in the mainstream. I did not learn Kiswahili, not even the kitchen variety (my biggest regret), but learnt the language of universality. I did not get to meet my idol, Prof. Wangari Maathai, but got to see her work and her “karmabhoomi”. I did not take to running as a fitness regimen (as I planned to) in the country of runners, but got to witness the glory of Marathon champions on their home turf. I did not lose weight, but gained wisdom. There is so much to do, and then there is only so much you can do. 

There will always be travel regrets, but who’s complaining!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Concrete and the Jungle

Nairobi National Park... in 20 Frames

As I set foot in Nairobi three years back, the first sight to greet me on the way from the airport to my new home was giraffes on the horizon strutting in their slow motion gait oblivious to rush-hour traffic. If that got the pulse throbbing, imagine the excitement of seeing the city skyline from across the divide through the eyes of the game. After many safaris and becoming wiser in the ways of the African bush and its beasts, I come home to the Nairobi National Park (NNP) to experience the thrill of a wild world co-existing with human habitation of a capital city. Where on earth will you find urban wilderness and cacophony trailing intimately the silence of the savannas!

On a holiday, with little traffic, it takes us less than 30 minutes to reach the park and we are instantly ushered into a parallel world just 10 kms off the City Centre!

NNP has a phenomenal diversity of birdlife with nearly 500 bird species. But to see birds one must be geared for that and in fact, follow certain walking trails to maximize sightings. We were on a game drive and hence got to see only guinea fowls, fish eagle, secretary bird, this lark and of course, ostriches.

NNP also has large number of the endangered and rare black rhinos. There are two species of rhinos – white and black. Black rhinos are browsers unlike the white who are grazers. We did spot the elusive black rhino, but true to its shy nature, it scurried for cover before we could get a good look at it. The ‘white’ rhinos are grey and not white; they have a wider jaw and it is believed that the descriptive “wide” got distorted as “white”. Here is a pair of white rhinos who are so unlike their brethren!

It was here for the first time that I could take pictures of the eland – the largest of the antelope species – comfortably. Elands are another of those shy creatures who slink away at the slightest sight of humans. We have come across elands on many safaris earlier but they are so quick to take to heel that it is difficult to get within comfortable distance for a good picture. The elands of NNP are pretty bold and one strode right next to our vehicle. The proximity to human habitation may have something to do with this altered or acquired trait.

The grassland savanna of NNP resembles a mini-Mara dotted as it is with all kind of game. Burchell’s zebra, Coke’s hartebeest, wildebeest, impalas and gazelles mingle with birds – ostriches, secretary bird, bustards - the size of mammals in a stunning mosaic. The game seems rather easy-going and relaxed; may have something to do with the presence of fewer predators.

Lions are still the royalty here, though their numbers have plummeted over the years. There have been incidents of human-lion conflicts, when the predator has picked on grazing cattle of the Maasai. The Maasai, for whom the cattle is everything, stalk the lions in vengeance and either spear them or cruelly bait them by  poisoning the cattle carcasses. A decade back, 11 lions were killed in a single such episode! Two nomadic young males strolled into our viewfinder on this somnolent sunny morning much to our delight.

Lions, leopards, and even cheetahs, grace the environs of NNP; the only missing element here is the elephant. But there is an Ivory Burning Site inside the park, a monument to Kenya’s commitment to halting ivory poaching. In a brave public display, in 1989, President Moi on the advice of then Director of Kenya Wildlife Service, Richard Leakey burnt tons of confiscated ivory preventing it from re-entering the market.  This symbolic gesture was to set a precedent which, ironically, not many nations have followed ever since! The following picture was taken on an earlier visit hence the lush green grass.

The grassland savanna gradually gives way to sparse acacia woodlands. There are the whistling thorn trees and yellow-bark acacia patches which are primarily giraffe habitat.

Stick figures stride the savannas swaying gently as they trot and canter. The giraffes are aptly called the Maasai Giraffes due to the lean and lanky attribute they share with the tribesmen. 

An impala herd – a male with its harem - is waiting to cross the road so we pause too. But for a while, both watch each other warily without making a move. The male, distinctive, with its antlers, leads a harem of females numbering anywhere between 10 and 50, sometimes, more. Before the males of my species rejoice at this “dame luck” let me recount what my naturalist friend, Richie (based in Tsavo), had to say about the impala male. It is the male’s duty to protect the females and calves, not only from predators but other males, too.  The dominant male is constantly looking over its shoulder to see that no female strays or falls prey to the charms of an adversary. The relentless task of guarding so many females and having to feed at the same time puts undue stress on the male; this in turn takes a toll on his health in the long run. Such a weakened male is easily replaced by another young male.  The impala on the road in the picture below is a female, though.

The city skyline stays with us for a large part of the game drive, but this once the wildlife is posited against the  magnificent Ngong Hills. Ngong Hills are the ubiquitous backdrop in Karen Blixen’s opus “Out of Africa” and they overlook her house and coffee garden that stand even today. The former is now a museum, and the latter, a café, the coffee plantations having long gone.

We nearly miss the well-camouflaged waterbuck and would have continued onward but on second thought reversed to get a clear look, and were we glad!  The male common waterbuck…

In 1906 Nairobi railway station was completed and it was this project that saw human habitation grow around what was largely swampy, marshy land. Indian dukas and make-shift offices of the colonial administration marked the beginnings of what was to become the centrestage of a capital city. In those historic times, wild animals were known to roam the streets freely come darkness confining  people indoors.Today, the lions and leopards are still around. This, to my mind, is one-of-a-kind "wonder of the world", indeed.