Avaes Mohammad

Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

Kenya: MOMBASA AND THE SWAHILI PROFESSOR (080509)

In Uncategorized on May 14, 2009 at 11:16 am

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Mombasa and The Swahili Professor

My second time in Mombasa I didn’t arrive alone either. I certainly set off from Nairobi alone but when the bus stopped half way for tea and snacks I met a woman called Naseem at the café bar.

‘Hello! Jambo! Salaam! Hello…Jambo Bwana…haa Jambo…where can I order brother? Where do I order? Hello? Brother where can I go to order?…some food?…Chai’

‘Chai!’

‘Haa chai…’

[He points. At the bar. Where I already am.]

‘Where? Here? Hello! Hello brother…where can I… ’

Naseem was stood next to me and while smirking told me in English which end of the bar to order at before grabbing an attendants attention for me in Kiswahili. I finally ordered. One chai and one boiled egg. Not the most balanced meal but what I felt like nonetheless.


‘Where are you from?’

‘England.’

‘Oh. I used to live in England.’

‘Yeah? Where?’

‘Cambridge.’

The first in a series of rapid succession lies.

‘Oh Yeah? I was in Cambridge for two years, just before I came here.’

‘Where?’

‘You know Mill Rd right? Just off it…Ross St.’

[Pause]

’Where’s Mill Rd?

‘Where all the shops and restaurants are?!’

[She looks at me like I’m the one that’s lying]

‘You know…Just off Parkers Piece?’

[beat] ‘Oh…[beat]… yeah.’

She then told me she was married. To later tell me she was engaged. To later tell me she was going to be engaged. She then told me the kids waiting for her at the table were hers. To later tell me they were her sisters.

‘Are you Khojo (a particular type of Indian Muslim)?’

‘No. I’m Kutchi.’

[In Kutchi] ‘I’m Kutchi too!’

Instantly she feels a kinship towards me. The safety barriers of cordiality usually maintained between strangers are promptly knocked out of the way like an annoyance.

[alternating between Kutchi and English as it suits her] ‘Why’s you hair so long? It doesn’t look nice. You look like a girl. Look…don’t take it wrong ways huh? I’m saying it to you like a sister…don’t take offence…but you should cut it. Cut it really! You look like a hippy. And do you pray? From your face you don’t look like you pray.’

[in Kutchi] ‘Do you pray?’

[in Kutchi] ’God be praised, I pray five times a day’

[In Kutchi] ‘Add a couple on for me too then’

[in Kutchi] ‘Uh-Uh! It doesn’t work like that!’

I feel like my Mother’s sent an agent to do her work while she’s not here but it’s also cute that she can say all this to me after only a moments’ introduction. We sit and eat together. Naseem and God knows whose kids have chicken and chips while I sit peeling my boiled egg.

‘Where are you staying in Mombasa?’

‘Dunno. My Mum’s got family there but I’m gonna check into a guest house I reckon. Figure out which one when I get there’

‘We’ve just opened a guest house in Mombasa.’

Turns out it’s literally around a very short corner from where my Mum’s Uncle Husseini lives; where I stayed when I visited Mombasa a couple of weeks ago. Also turns out Naseems’ family are very close friends of my Mum’s Uncles’ family. This I discover later as she pretends she’s never heard of them when I mention them all by name. The coincidences make me smile though and I like coincidences so I say yes. I’ll stay at her guest house. It’s in Old Town too, which is where I wanna be, so when the bus pulls into Mombasa that night I walk off with Naseem and the two children of mysterious origins to be escorted into a part of the city I’m already a little familiar with.

Ever since I’ve been in Kenya I’ve really been looked after. I feel like an esteemed guest here. Wherever I’ve been in this country, I’ve been taken care of. I’ve been nursed. My steps have been cushioned. I don’t feel a stranger here. We arrive at the guest house and it’s ridiculously close to Husseini’s house. He’ll be pissed when he discovers I’m not staying with him and I’m just around the corner. I want to see Mombasa on my own though. I hope he won’t be too offended.

I spend my time in Mombasa mainly walking through the streets of Old Town and taking pictures. Stopping for Kahawa (local strong black coffee). Writing. I wanna be sure I know where my Mum’s old houses are so I can find them on my own in the future; show them to my kids one day maybe and so I retrace the footsteps I’d left with my Mum a couple of weeks ago.

One early afternoon, I’m walking through a street in Old Town looking for this great café I discovered a couple of weeks ago called Jahaazi. Their coffee is okay but they have the best samosas, spiced potatoes and chutney. As I walk into the café, donning Ray Bans, hair at all angles, rucksack weighing me down, everyones cup floats midair while they follow me with their gazes. An elderly well groomed fella, dressed in an elegant Arabic long overshirt (jub’a) and a Swahili hat is looking the most intently. I know who he is. He’s even on the same chair. He doesn’t know me though.

The Swahili Professor

The Swahili Professor

‘Keysey ho? Saroo che?’

He utters the few Urdu and Gujerati greetings he knows, trying to confirm his version of my identity.

‘Bilkul theek! Aap keysey ho?’

‘Theek thaak!’

Satisfied enough with his powers of identification, he relaxes back into his chair and his hovering cup of coffee makes it up to his lips.

‘Are you a Professor?’

‘Sorry?’

The woman sat next to him holding a stack of books repeats on my behalf in Kiswahili. He seems flattered that I, a strange stranger should know this about him.

‘Yes. I am. But come here…I can’t hear from so far away’

I walk over to him. There are no chairs available so I kneel before him. Whilst humoured at this scene, I give him my hand.

‘As Salaam-o-alaikum. My name is Avaes Mohammad. I’m from England’

‘Wa’alaikum As-Salaam! England?’

‘Yeah…I’m travelling…and I’m a Writer…I know you’re a Professor because I was here with my mother’s uncle two weeks ago. He lives in Old Town.’

‘Oh…he lives here…’

‘Yeah. When we here so were you. That’s when he told me you were a professor of Swahili culture. He’d seen you on T.V.’

He blushes.

‘Ohhho…I see!’

‘I’ve received a grant from the English Arts Council…’

‘Oh…’

‘….yeah…er…to visit the countries of my cultural heritage. My mother is from Mombasa. She was born here and so this is where I’ve started. In Old Town. Then I hope to go to Zanzibar. My Grandfather was born there…her father.’

‘Well then you are a native!’

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the slightest bit flattered, even touched by this statement. I smiled.

‘er…thank you…then I’ll go to India and then to Pakistan. My father was born in Pakistan…’

‘Aaahhh!’

‘As you’re a professor of Swahili Culture I’d really love to speak with you for a while. I’m interested in the culture here and would love to hear what you have to say about it. If you have the time? Whenever you have the time!’

He’s been holding my hand warmly, close to his chest all this while. He lets go.

‘Well today is Friday. So meet me at 9 o’clock tomorrow.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes.’

‘Excellent. That’s great. That would be a great help absolutely. Thank you. Asanti Sana!’

‘No problem. This is my job.’

Ten minutes to nine the next day I’m waiting outside Jahaazi café while it’s being cleaned inside. I’m being watched with intrigue as people walk past. A local guide sits next to me and we talk about my forthcoming journey to Zanzibar. He also talks about Manchester United. Across one of these charming alleys, in between the ornate wooden balconies carved with elaborate and detailed designs, the origins of which can be traced centuries back, stands a huge banner for Liverpool Football Club. The words ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ underneath the club’s emblem.

‘I’m going to tear it! Just watch…I’ll rip down the Liverpool and tear it then leave pieces in the street. Just see!! You’ll never walk alone?!! What is this stupid? Who walks alone? Nobody walks alone…we all walk with friends isn’t it?!’

The professor arrives.

‘As-salaam-o-alaikum!’

‘Wa’alaikum salaam. [Beat] Anees? Arees?’

‘Avaes’

‘Avaes!’

We walk inside and he rests himself against some cushions. After showing me his most recent paper and ordering coffee, we begin. I speak into my dictophone…

‘Interview on the Second of May 2009, Old Town Mombasa, with Professor Ahmed Shaikh Nabhany, of the National Museums of Kenya.’

My attempt at getting the ball rolling is quite clumsy. I get across that I’m interested particularly with Swahili culture, the culture of the coast of East Africa and its surrounding islands, as it’s the culture of my Mother. Even more clumsily however, I attempt to explain that what with multiculturalism and all that, you know, coz London’s like one of the most multicultural places in the world like, if not the most multicultural place in the world, then Swahili culture, the way it’s used all these different components and that, to create something new like…that’s really…interesting. For me. And for England!!

I’m suddenly an ambassador for the Royal London Multicultural Institute (is there one? There should be!) and I’m speaking on behalf of all my countryfolk. I shall be heard by decree of Her Majesty!

After his patient ‘uh-hms’, he clears his throat:

‘Now let us talk about the original Swahili Culture because as you know you can’t enter a house through the window. You enter the house through the door…’

Like I’m being whipped through time all the way back to the origins of man, The Professor explains the four original groups of African languages and gently walks me down the branch that began with Congo Kodofanian. Stopping to gaze a while at each of its junctions, each of it’s branches, we arrive finally at the penultimate Bantu Clan, from which Swahili came. He explains it was the Arabs that gave the name Swahili, originating from the Arabic word for Coast, Saahil. The Swahili therefore, are The People of the Coast. The original Bantu name was Wangozi. He spoke of the ‘Sewn Boats’ that were observed here by a Greek traveller from the days of old, boats that had no nails, instead fibres were used to sew it together. These boats he said, were used to trade with the Arabian Gulf and with India. Green turtle shells were exported, as were Ivory, Tamarind, Rhino horns and from India they imported water pots, spices, furniture and clothes. A Kiswahili proverb states: ‘In India people went naked so they could supply us with clothes’. From the lands of Arabia, they imported dates and perfume. As such, there was a long history of contact and interaction between these peoples, sharing their cuisine, their language, their clothes. He then spoke of the three groups, the three ways in which you might be considered a Swahili:

  1. If both your parents were original Swahilis, i.e., with lineage traceable back to the Bantu clan.
  2. If you married an original Swahili.
  3. If you consciously decide you want to adopt the Swahili Culture. In this case a grand ceremony is held, you’re accepted as a Swahili brother or sister, but you must renounce all associations with your previous culture, including language and accept Islam.

I asked if he thinks whether of the three contributing components to Swahili culture, Indian, Bantu and Arab, does one dominate? I asked this I suppose because I personally felt the Arab component did. He replied diplomatically, enigmatically, that the Swahili were a clever people and took only the best of everything. After 45 minutes of talking continuously, he declared ’I think this is enough for this time. I’ve talked a lot I think!’

I thanked him for his time and expressed my appreciation for having increased my understanding. He replied that in Islam it was a person’s duty to seek knowledge even if he or she had to travel as far as China and he was glad he could help me. Then he went to get a new Swahili hat sewn.

I have to confess, I’m not sure about his defining categories of Swahili people though. It seems too purist, too inward and I’m not sure culture works like that. To me, if it’s raining outside you get wet whether you wanted to or not. If you walk through a perfume shop you inevitably leave smelling a little sweeter, whether the shopowner intended you to or not. If all you hear is Hip-Hop, even in Surrey, you can’t help but say Yo, regardless of how baggy your jeans are. And if you moved to Mombasa from a faraway land, didn’t intermarry and still kept your original religion and language, surely you couldn’t avoid but be infected by the humble, courteous and beautifully elegant ways of the Swahili people.

Hearing Professor Ahmed Shaikh Nabhany speak was illuminating however and did make me think about culture and multiculture differently. It seemed that the strength of Swahili culture and an important reason why people of Indian, Arab and Bantu origin could identify with it together, was intermarriage. If people hadn’t intermarried themselves, they had an aunt or uncle that had and that’s really brought people together here. I like this. In a naive, idealistic kind of way maybe it’s like saying: ‘Love is all you need’.

Admittedly, I was a little cynical about the strong Arab influence over the Swahili culture. I was concerned it had made its place at the expense of Bantu and Indian cultures in an imperialistic kind of way. Arabs had conquered here and developed a gruesome trade in Black African Slaves on the Swahili coast. But I was interested to learn that what I saw as an imposition of Arab culture could also be seen as a celebration of Muslim culture, which hadn’t arrived with any imperial conquest. According to the professor, The Swahili were Muslim way before any such attack. They pride themselves on being among the first to accept the message of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) as it travelled from Arabia with the first Muslim refugees into Ethiopia. The message of Mohammad was subsequently spread into Somalia and then into the Kenyan coast. The Swahili were Muslim even before some Arabs were.

Also, consider this for a crazy idea: If people in London were all to fall in love with each other en masse tomorrow, without care for race, etc. and had lots of babies then wouldn’t it would be unrealistic to assume that the new resultant culture created should equally represent all its constituent parts?

What I love about Swahili culture is that all these people of different origins collectively declare the same identity which they all feel they have contributed to. Not just adopted.

Before he’d decided he spoke enough, The Professor attempted to put the whole culture/identity debate into context for me by quoting a lovely verse from the Qur’an: ‘O People, We created you male and female and then grouped you into tribes and nations, only so you may know each other.’

Kenya: IMAGES OF MOMBASA

In Uncategorized on May 7, 2009 at 3:40 pm

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coconut water...its good for you daughter...CO-CO-NUUUUTS!

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i grew up with legends of this place imprinted in my mind...my mum's/aunt's/uncle's favourite bakery

i grew up with legends of this place imprinted in my mind...my mum's/aunt's/uncle's favourite bakery

my favourite cafe in mombasa - JAHAAZI

my favourite cafe in mombasa - JAHAAZI

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

Kenya: ON THE EDGE OF THE OCEAN (010509)

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2009 at 4:15 pm

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ON THE EDGE OF THE OCEAN

to the right of me

to the right of me

I’m sat at a step, on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Rocks to the right and left of me bear the scars of having been beat by the ocean for thousands of years. Crabs congregate on the rocks like young boys in hoods do outside Spar in Balham (is there a spar in Balham?).

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to the left of me

The crabs look as though they’re meant to be there. They fit. In that evolutionary type of way; their colour and texture fit against the rocks. Blend in. And today, I daresay that I’m meant to be here. That my colour and texture fit against these rocks. I fit against these centuries old buildings of Old Town Mombasa. I fit against the dazzling blue of the Indian Ocean and the bright orange-brown of the earth here. I think I fit amongst the people here. Arab African, Indian African, Bantu African, the mixes in between.

I’m sitting at the edge of my Mothers old area. There’s an old, large wooden ship to the left of me that’s obstructing one of the houses where Mum used to live. Never had I imagined my mother’s land to be this beautiful. Seething with so much culture. Its impossible to describe. To write it. African, Portugese, Omani Arab, Indian, British. And you can see it. Most of these ingredients sit together in what is today, Swahili Culture. This is the only place in the world I’ve seen it happen. Where the various cultures in a land haven’t lived as isolated pockets walking alongside each other in Hyde Park on a Sunday, but actually come together in the creation of something new. The language, Kiswahili, is a Bantu African based language with Arabic, Indian, and some Portugese and English influence. Not just token influences but actual contributions. On the coast of Kenya, Indians, ‘Native Kenyans’, Arabs, they are all Swahili. Of course I’ve heard some Indians here talk about Africans as though they’re another. Moreso in Nairobi. Equally I’ve met Indians here that are proud Africans and are actively fighting to be recognised as such. But aside from these human truths, another equally human truth is that there’s something very special here. Something I dare all of us in England to think about. Possibly learn from. Because as much as my colour and texture fits against this tropical ocean, the palm trees, the weathered buildings, the crabs, I know my colour, my texture also fits against the wild rivers that run through the Ribble Valley in Lancashire, the blue hills of the Summer Lake District, the crabs at Morcambe Bay.

My mother probably played here as a child. She’d narrate scenes where she’s throwing stones into the air, sat on the edge of the blue ocean before chasing crabs with her friends…

crabs outside spar in balham

crabs outside spar in balham

Kenya: NAIROBI TO MOMBASA 2 (300409)

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm

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NAIROBI TO MOMBASA 2

I’m on this journey for the second time. It’s still as beautiful and wondrous as the first, except this time my head is full already with what it is I leave behind me. My second time in Nairobi I arrived with fever, said goodbye to my mother as she flew back to the UK, was nursed to health by practical strangers, put myself into a hostel, met local artists and cultural activists and spent at least some time everyday with a wonderful new friend, Nivi.

As I leave currently, I’m surprised at what’s occupying my thoughts. During my time at the backpackers hostel I met many new people. People who worked there that I developed new friendships with and also fellow travellers. Every evening ended with tables overburdened with empty beer bottles, songs and jokes around the fire and stories. Stories of our adventures across Africa shared with each other as though they were our war wounds; badges testifying to our presence here like lovers names carved into trees. My badges are relatively babyish. I can’t equal being chased by Lions, running over the head of a hippo only to run out of petrol 20 yards ahead of it, catching malaria, having insects laying eggs between my toes (inside!) or being invited to a wedding in Ethiopia to witness demons being exorcised from the bride. These evenings however, the people I met, the time and stories shared; with these I’ll begin my badge collection.

It’s strange, meeting travellers in hostels. There’s camaraderie from the onset. People who collectively relate to the same fears and hopes. People who share almost childish western frustrations, like ‘why do we have to bribe police officers and border officials?’ and people who can relate to hating Celine Dion but loving the new Kings of Leon album. More than this though, these strange encounters allow for something unexpectedly beautiful. Mainly because we’ll probably never see each other again, there’s amazing care and respect in these encounters. Sometimes love. As well as sharing badges, sometimes, we share far more personal tales. Sometimes, shockingly, we trust each other with intimate truths about ourselves. I’ve heard people say it’s easier to confide in strangers. I don’t think that’s the entire truth of this matter. As the early hours approach, as flames on the fire pacify themselves, and as riotous intoxications loosen their grip around some of us, it becomes startlingly clear that despite the various nationalities, accents and stereotypes sat around the fire together, we’re all surprisingly similar. We’ve all walked out to discover. At some point we’ve all stopped and thought…’Hmm. Life is short. And precious. I need to live it a bit more. The world is beautiful and giving. I need to see it, take a bit more. Soon I’ll be dead.’ In whichever way, we’ve all sought to be masters of our own destinies. Unshaven, undernourished, tired renegades sharing the same fears and hopes. But one more thing that becomes clear around the fire is that despite the adventures, the free-spirited travelling and the non-conformity, perhaps we’re all also running. The aid workers, the environmental scientists, the travellers, the entrepreneurs, the writers. Maybe we’re all just running from something. An unsaid truth sparkles like a silver, shimmering thread between us, like a fear. Running away might be becoming the habit of a lifetime. Maybe.

It’s safe to say whatever we want. To confide whatever we like. We won’t see each other again. We hug and wish each other well for the rest of our adventures. And I hope that sometime in the future I will meet South African Bob again, maybe by a South American roadside, or meet American Eddie in a Hungarian Hostel or Italian Valentina in an Indian Chai-wallas, so we can share new badges with each other. For now, I miss them.

Valentina

Valentina

NEW CITY. NEW FRIEND.

she came onto me!

she came onto me!

I love travelling. I’ve been pretty much addicted to it for years now. Sometimes I feel like I’m cursed to a life on the road forever. Other times I wonder whether it is a curse. But of all the different means and methods by which I’ve travelled, my most favourite means and method is discovering a new city through the eyes and in the company of a new friend. Through this means, it becomes possible to see the character of a city, it becomes possible to smell, to talk to, to laugh with a city. To see the subtleties of that city’s character personified into one of it’s own. The humour, the cheek, the walk of a city lays herself open to you. Streetlight reflects in her jewellery and the city breeze gives chorus in her hair as she laughs open-heartedly in the same key as city traffic below. Seeing a city through one of its sons or daughters is a blessing and I was blessed in Nairobi with the encounter and friendship of Nivi. With instant laughter between us, we sought to spend time with each other practically everyday for almost a week. Nivi’s an immensely proud Nairobiite. She loves Nairobi as much as I love Manchester. More actually. She showed me around the haunts of Nairobi and together we visited Giraffe park where I snogged a Giraffe (she came onto me!). One evening she took me to sample crocodile meat. I heavily disapprove! I’d forsaken my golden rule of never eating anything that can eat me on this evening, only to become a stauncher advocate of it. I felt that one morsel’s every meandering move while it passed down my gullet. Only with great difficulty did that wrongness manage to stay down. I feel I’ve made an enemy somewhere on a riverbank in Kenya. Like the deceased crocodile’s Kung-Fu brother is venturing on a journey of vengeance as I write this. Never again will I eat anything that can eat me!

This evening too, like many evenings between Nivi and I concluded in childlike laughter and carefree song as we drove down Nairobi highways backlit by passing cars. Unavoidably, Nivi and Nairobi remain inseparable from one another in my memory and I leave Nairobi with images of mischevious, twinkling streetlight, screeching laughter and proud beauty.

One of my favourite things about travelling has to be meeting inspiring new people. Coupled to this though, is always a goodbye.

Nivi doing the Uhuru Park pose

Nivi doing the Uhuru Park pose

Kenya: IN NAIROBI FILLING IN THE BLANKS (260409)

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2009 at 4:04 pm

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IN NAIROBI FILLING IN THE BLANKS

The fire from last night is dead. Charred logs that’ll be lit again tonight. In the bar of my Nairobi hostel, Kenyan radio provides the background music as I write. It’s normally really good. Today however, a Kenyan Celine Dion pierces my peace.

On the evening of 23rd April I finally felt better enough to leave my ‘aunts’…well…my mum’s cousin’s. I’m really grateful that I was able to stay with them for as long as it took for…

…a mesmerising bird just landed on the baby palm tree in front of me.Not much bigger than a sparrow, but with a long, copper red tail and lower body and dark indigo blue everything else….

Okay…yeah I left my mum’s cousins home. I was there till I got better from the fever I had. And that was great. Ultimately though people, no matter how much ‘family love’ family members you haven’t met before show you, sometimes…it’s best taken with a pinch of sweet salt. The intention should always be enjoyed I reckon. And I do. The declarations of unbridled care and love just shouldn’t always be totally expected. And I don’t. I waited till the early evening on the 23rd before I left. I just wanted to wait for Suhayl, their 16 year old son to come back from school so I could say goodbye to him. A die-hard Manchester United fan (like everyone here), he was my guide and companion for the past two weeks and I’ve become really fond of him. He arrived and I picked up my bags. Suhayl walked me to the taxi, ensuring I got in okay and that the taxi driver miss-called him to let him know I arrived at the hostel. I want to get him a Manchester United shirt when I return to England but hate United…oh what to do, what to do!!

Suhayl on the look out for marauding Arabs at Fort Jesus, Mombasa.

Suhayl on the look out for marauding Arabs at Fort Jesus, Mombasa.

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Hostel Afternoon

Hostel Afternoon


The hostel’s perfect. I have my own room… a wooden shack/hut thing with a double bed, mosquito net and a lamp. The showers and general facilities are all communal. A great outdoor restaurant/bar area where we party away the evenings with music, singing, jokes and hardy, possibly tall tales of crossing treacherous roads into Ethiopia, being chased by Lions in Mozambique, Aid projects that never see the money and travellers bribing their way through the continent. All evenings are like a United Nations youth convention. There are American travellers, A Canadian Aid worker, A Norwegian backpacker, An Afrikaans businessman who’s really just a drunk…a very pleasant drunk, A Peruvian Conflict Resolution worker, a stunningly beautiful Danish Environmental Scientist and Me. An Englishman. Maybe one day I’ll be able to say/write that without pausing. Maybe not. English, from around Manchester…Can’t stand United…Can’t stand English football full stop, thank you very much mate. And I’m here discovering my cultural heritage. I’m a writer. It’s quite the sexy persona I have. Nearly everyone I’ve met is a closet writer, dancer or musician and the fact I got this gig is giving me loads of Kudos…I may need a bigger backpack to carry it all in.

Anyway…now that I’ve developed this reputation it means I actually gotta write. Coz that’s what writers do apparently. And I’m behind…so before I go on about the time I’m having in Nairobi, I wanna go back a couple of weeks and talk about Mombasa.

I was there between the 8th and 15th of April. Seems a bit distant now but I wanna get it down before it’s gone. I travelled there on the bus with my mum in the seat in front of me and Suhayl right at the front of the bus. As we drove in I was enjoying watching the focused, sombre expressions on my Mum’s face. This evening was the first time she was entering the city again since leaving it 37 years ago when she was around 20 years old. It was only a few days ago in Nairobi that she disclosed the reason for her prolonged absence. In those 37 years countless family members and friends had revisited Mombasa from England, all coming back with stories of how the city had changed. The stories scared her. She remembers an idyllic Mombasa, laced with nostalgia and the type of magical charm which legends like Arabian Nights are made of. She remembers a warm, friendly, sophisticated people. She remembers being able to play by the sea. She remembers doors being left open. She remembers a love between people that race and religion always remained second to. She remembers handsome, well groomed, elderly gentlemen making their way elegantly to and from the mosques. Stopping to share stories over Kahawa (local coffee). I think most of all however, she remembers her father. Where he worked. Where his friends lived. Where he hung out. Where he stopped to share stories over Kahawa. Each of these memories, each of these streets are precious to her and she’d just rather not visit a Mombasa that to her, betrayed itself.

‘Where is this? Excuse me…where are we? Which area is this? Excuse me…’

Mombasa had grown while she’d been away. The suburbs that used to be a collection of shacks are now like small towns. She actually looks worried. Then we cross a bridge, go through a roundabout with a Shell petrol pump by it and she sits more comfortably. Glued to the window.

‘Is this Mombasa then Mum?’

‘Haa. We’re here’

‘Has it changed?’

‘No. No it hasn’t.’

She’s surprised at all the cars, but points out Gulshan Restaurant that stands where it always did. Still there. She points out the mosques. The shops. The cinemas. Still there. People dress the same way, mostly. Walk the same way. The streets are still clean. It’s all still there. The bus pulls into the stop. ‘This is the same bus stop we left Mombasa from in 1972’. Life’s poetic. It just is.

I get off the bus to get our luggage. After I finish battling with a crowd of hyper-keen taxi drivers and manage to pick up our bags, I turn around to see Mum walking towards a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) behind a small framed elderly fella, dressed quite dapper for his age in a polo shirt and trousers and a well maintained full head of hair. That must be him. I’ve heard stories about him. His miserly reputation is famed all the way in England. Husseini Mama. My mothers uncle. My late Grandmothers’ baby brother. The closest member of my mother’s family still in Mombasa.

I climb into the tuk-tuk after his skinny arms rip my back-pack from me and load it onto the vehicle. We haven’t even said hello yet. In my family, the tradition is for me to kiss the hand of elders. But the moment seems gone now. So I sit uncomfortably with my rudeness.

‘This is Old Town’

We enter a latticed network of twisted alleys, with peering balconies and old tall buildings so close on either side that they almost kiss each other. The architecture could be Portugese, could be Arab, could be Indian. We stop outside a kiosk where an old man is sat watching the night. Husseini argues with the tuk-tuk driver about payment and we take our bags. He runs after us down the dark alley as Suhayl and I carry the bags. The old fella takes my Mum’s 20 tonne suitcase from me and starts carrying it up the two flights of stairs. After the first his tiredness outweighs his sense of duty and I take the bag.

‘Mum I’m gonna go for a walk with Suhayl. Just to chill for a bit’

‘I’m coming’

She’d just seen a rat in the flat and was on edge.

My quiet walk turns into no fewer than a party of ten out on an evening stroll. It’s like my mum hasn’t been away. She just strides into it. It’s all exactly where it all was. We walk past Island Dishes, up the hill and left towards Fort Jesus, built by the Portugese to guard their Mombasa from aspirations the Arabs had for it. The ocean is just the other side of the Fort. We’re about to walk down an alley but Mum won’t let us. Her Mother had an encounter down that same alley once. With a spirit that consequently never left her. For me it’s like history unfolding inside a picture. The stories I’ve heard growing up were being reuttered in their original locations. We take another route and walk under ornate balconies and beautifully detailed wooden Arab doors. Old Town is gorgeous.

In Old Town

In Old Town

The next few days in Mombasa are riotous. Non-stop full adrenaline! Walking the streets. Seeing towns outside Mombasa. Going to restaurants. Visting family members. Visting my grandfathers friends. Visting my grandfathers friends children. Visiting strangers. Visting towns outside Mombasa. Visiting the ocean. The beaches. The Sea air. Of all the visting, two trips stick in mind. Makinapir and one of My Mum’s old houses:

Makinapir. An hour back up the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. A Sufi shrine with a railway track running alongside the mausoleum. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and local Africans of the various tribes attend this shrine. The mausoleum is built in typical South Asian style. It houses the body of a Sufi Saint who arrived in Kenya in the early twentieth century to build railways, alongside my ancestors on my Maternal Grandmothers side. The same railways that serve Kenya today. None of my family here have ever been on a train. Maybe they consider it sacrilege? The story of the saint at Makinapir, as narrated to me by the caretaker of the mausoleum is this…….. The British had all these Indians building railways in East Africa. This dude was one of them. He’d arrived from a part of India that today is in Pakistan. The guy was quite old. His job was carrying some stuff, rocks or something, in a basket on his head to the line. One hot afternoon, he was tired. So he sat. The British officer fella didn’t like this. ‘Get to work old man!’, he said. And so Old Man got to work. But as he walked, the basket hovered above his head. Almost like out of pity for him. Coz he was such a nice dude and so in touch with God and Creation and all that, that he developed a special relationship with everything around him. And the basket itself is like, ‘Dude! You’re tired man! I’ll lift myself thank you very much!’. The fellow workers saw this and having heard stories of holy types all their lives understood that Old Man was also a Holy Type. ‘Holy Type Dude!’ , they said. We’ll carry your rocks from now on. ‘Nah fellow dudes’. He said. ‘We’ll all do our own share’. And so they did. But the secret was out. He was special. So everyone started going to Old Man with their problems. The greatest of which was Lions. Some railway builders were being eaten by them. So one evening Old Man walks over to an approaching Lion and, well, talks to it. Face to face. Man to Lion. ‘Please stop eating us Lion dude!’. Or something like that. And it worked. The Lions stopped attacking the railway builders in that area. Before Old Man died, he asked to be buried wherever he died. A railway track sits directly alongside the mausoleum. I’m guessing he died working. His colleagues did bury him according to his request but also built him a mausoleum as is the custom for Holy Types. They say that after it was built and before there was an official caretaker, Lion footprints would be found around the mausoleum some mornings. Apparently, they’d come in the night and sweep up the place with their tails, you know, tidy the place up a bit. Then get off. They were fond of Holy Type Dude too you see.

I loved spending the afternoon at Makinapir. I loved this story. I loved how recent it was. I loved seeing the people who came to offer prayers and just take in the atmosphere. Literally people of all colours (even white) and all religions. I thought it was cute that a hot young woman arrived in her little hot pants and quickly whipped round a sarong before stepping inside the mausoleum. Few places in the world are as inclusive unfortunately. Thursday evenings they have prayers that are offered in song with drumming accompaniment. I’m really disappointed I never got to go on a Thursday evening. But it’s a special place and I hope to be back. Hopefully one Thursday evening.

Mum’s Old House.

Me Ma's Old 'ouse

Me Ma's Old 'ouse

One morning my mother’s uncle Husseini, his lovely wife Sakina, Suhayl, my Mother and I, walk through Old Town to visit the houses Mum used to live in. We walk through the alleys with people shouting as they sell fruit, coconuts, bhajiyas and spiced coffee (Kahawa). I filmed this morning. Like a proper tourist. Hair tied back, donning Ray Bans, and walking behind my mum with a camcorder as she paused. ‘The Halwa-wallah’s still here… Your aunt Baby (that’s what we call her) was born here…Your grandfather prayed in this mosque…We’d get sweets for free from here. My grandfather had told the owner to give us whatever we wanted whenever we liked.’

We walk past Yusra Clothes Shop on the right and I think of a friend in England.

‘See where that old man is sat. We used to live there.’

We walk in. It’s also a clothes shop now. My mother explains to the attendent that she used to live here about 40ish years ago.

Mum's old front room

Mum's old front room

‘Yes? So this is history!’

She cries. The shop was their front-room come bedroom. Twelve of them. Its not a big shop.

‘There used to be a small kitchen and bathroom at the back?’

‘Yes Yes! Still is, Still is’

Like a secret vault, he pulls at a panel that’s actually a door at the back of the shop. We walk through and she cries a bit more at seeing the small rooms that were her small kitchen and bathroom. She walks out. I’m still filming.

‘We were happy here.’

The Album Shot (outside another of my mum's old homes)

The Album Shot (outside another of me ma's old homes)


Husseini.

Husseini

Husseini

Before I leave this Mombasa section I’ve got to talk about my mothers uncle Husseini. I really like him. He’s such a contacurous old git. Just the same as that old git from The Royle Family. I like his contacurousness because it reminds me of my Nan. His sister. He thinks everyone in his family is against him, that no-one respects him and more importantly, he’s adamant in his belief that he knows best. His wife is blatantly the boss. He knows it and this really irks at him. He still works as an electrician. One evening we were all going for dinner and he refused to join. He said his wife didn’t want him to come.

Mum [to her aunt]: Are you coming for dinner?

Aunt: Yes. [to her husband] Are you coming?

Husseini: No.

Mum: Why?

Husseini: Because my wife doesn’t want me to come. Didn’t you just hear her? I’ll just have to eat here tonight I suppose. I’ll just eat what my wife has cooked.

Ridiculous. But funny. One evening we’re at another Uncles. Husseini doesn’t shut up. He can’t. He talks incessantly. Fortunately he’s good humoured enough to be confronted about it.

Sakina (wife): [in Kutchi] You talk too much

Husseini (husdband): [in Kutchi] No I don’t. [in English] I am know everything. I am know more than you!

It’s strange that I love his weird ways. These were the same weird ways I disliked in my Nan towards the end of her life and avoided her a little on account of them. And now that she’s dead, I’ve travelled to Mombasa to sit in the company of her brother just to be reminded of those very same weird ways.

The evening when Husseini doesn’t come for dinner, we discuss these ways. The conversation going round is that old men who feel they need to be in control can only be bitter. They’re old and can’t be in control anymore. They should accept that. Women control the home better. Men that fight this can only lose and so have no option but to become bitter. I agree and hope I remember this when I’m old.