Avaes Mohammad


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



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.


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)




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.


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