Mombasa, also known as the gateway to Africa, is one of the continent’s oldest cities on the eastern seaboard and to date, one of the most developed too.
The city grew around the port of Kilindini, a natural deep harbour at the end of the Likoni Channel, and one that has been expanded over the years, now serving most, if not all, of the East and near Central African hinterland through the Northern Corridor.
Besides maritime commerce, which is the mainstay of the city, Mombasa is a world famous tourist resort, attracting thousands of local and international travellers annually to its sandy, white beaches and inland attractions.
The heart of Mombasa is the island, also known as Mvita, which can be approached from the western mainland through the Kipevu Causeway, from the northern mainland through the Nyali Bridge and from the southern mainland through the Likoni Ferry Crossing, at the port’s entrance.
The main attractions on the island are the Old Town (Mji wa Kale)—a Unesco World Heritage Site; the iconic Elephant Tusks that welcomes visitors to the dock area of the port city; Fort Jesus and the newly redeveloped Mama Ngina Waterfront Park formerly the Mama Ngina Drive, a seafront open public space.
The latter, a 26-acre waterfront space, was recently redeveloped at a cost of Ksh460 million ($4.6 million), into a modern public recreational area with several added amenities.
A fortnight ago, the park was the venue of Kenya’s Mashujaa Day national celebrations, and which also marked its inauguration as a public waterfront following six months of closure for the redevelopment.
The waterfront now features a palm tree-lined walkway from the Likoni Ferry Crossing to its south through to the Mombasa Golf Club to the north.
These two points are the entry and exit points both ways, and are now marked by huge monumental gates.
From its initial layout of a watching bay area carved out of a small rising cliff facing the Likoni channel, the waterfront park has a properly built natural amphitheatre, a cultural centre, and a sun-drenched 2.1km long promenade and a space for food vendors.
The park has always been a place for leisure resting, walking, jogging and riding. One day after the Mashujaa celebrations, we visited the park and it was teeming with residents who were only glad to have the space back.
The EastAfrican met Ken Le, a Chinese tourist strolling along the walkway. He told us he finds the park very pleasant, picturesque and ‘‘Instagram worthy.’’
“You can take a walk or jog, because there is a cool breeze here. It is just wonderful for someone to walk so close to the ocean and take photographs,” Mr Ken said.
The walkway has rail guards separating it from the cliff-face, just above the pounding waves crashing onto the rocks below.
Before the redevelopment, there were no barriers and the cliffs were exposed. It is now a safe, family-friendly place. Children can be seen walking easily, enjoying the treats on offer as the grown-ups relax under the shady trees.
The Mama Ngina Waterfront has always been a place for family outings, with 24-hour offering of coastal snacks sold by smallscale traders who operate here all year long.
It is famous for its fried cassava served with a dash of lemon juice and a sprinkle of chilli powder (hot masala), freshly fried cassava crisps, locally known as Kachiri, all manner of fried potatoes, pastries, sweet and savoury delicacies, chicken and fish snacks and the famous Mkate wa mayai (a pan-fried snack of a thin dough crust filled with minced meat, onion rings and eggs).
The list of food offering is endless, and all these are washed down with the ever present fresh coconut water (not juice) from unmatured coconut known as madafu. No worry as these treats are available all year round.
The sitting area now a properly built amphitheatre, has more greenery with newly planted palm trees and grass where visitors can while away time.
Families can be spotted walking or sitting besides their parked vehicles, enjoying the gentle breeze from the ocean and watching ships assisted by tugboats sail in and out of the port.
Ship watchers are likely to be found in their parked cars or seated on benches dotting the park; enjoying the sights and sounds of the Kilindini harbour.
For years, this park has housed the famous Florida Nightclub & Casino and Galaxy Chinese Restaurant on the northern edge. These have been incorporated into the cultural vista of the new look park.
“I love it here. I came with my wife and children all the way from Magongo (western mainland) for them to enjoy the new look park and walk on the oceanfront walkway. It is now safer because there are no cars allowed on the pedestrian path, which has been separated from the main road that cuts across the length of the park. And it is not congested,” said John Fred.
The amphitheatre is impressive with its design, right out of ancient Rome, cut into the northern cliff side. It has a seating capacity of 3,000 people. Concerts, performances and cultural events can now be held here comfortably.
An addition of the redevelopment is the Kilindini Cultural Center, the gateways and two cylindrical pigeon towers. The original parking squares have been retained next to the walkway to ensure orderliness.
The centre features Swahili architecture and design, yet has a modern touch. The decorative white plaster finishing, Swahili wooden carved doors and window shutters are a reflection of what is found and preserved at the Old Town, with its intricate and fine carving details.
“It is where we will exhibit and tell the story of the Swahili culture. It has exhibition halls and screening rooms from where vsitors can watch and listen to audios to learn more about the history of the city,” Said Athman Tourism Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism said.
At the northern end near the Mombasa Golf Club and facing the cultural centre are the pigeon towers.
The towers too are typical Swahili architecture of a wall with decorative air vents to allow the wind to blow through says Mr Athman. They look like minarets.
They are a monument to the original settlers of Mombasa—who grew out of the kingdoms of Mwana Mkisi and Shehe Mvita (these were the Watangana, Wakilindini, Wamvita, Wachangamwe and Wajomvu communities).
Mombasa has a rich history going back centuries. In the 1500s, the Portuguese invaded and took over the city and built the now iconic Fort Jesus as their military and administrative base.(It is now under restoration by Unesco, the National Museums of Kenya and the County government).
The city was for long a battleground of the Arab-Portuguese wars changing rulership with every war cycle.
According to information at the National Museums of Kenya, most of the fighting for the control of the island (Mvita) is believed to have taken place on the current site of the waterfront, then occupied by the Wakilindini.
The preserved 400-year old baobab trees seen on the Likoni Crossing side of the park are believed to be grave markers for many of the Wakilindini who were killed in these wars. The community was permanently displaced from their seafront settlements.
Despite its well-known status, little historical information on the park is displayed for the public. Archaeologists are currently piecing together relics and ruins to tell its story in full for posterity.
Signage is also limited but the Ministry of Tourism is in the process of training local tour guides who will give visitors walk-through narration on visits as happens in many historical tourist sites around the world.
During the redevelopment of the park, archaeologists found ruins of the early settlements, which will be preserved and displayed at the Kilindini Cultural Centre.
Mr Athman noted that the waterfront’s redevelopment was long overdue. Now that it is done, the park is expected to grow in stature as one of Mombasa’s popular dining and relaxing, family-friendly outdoor destination.
“The principle around Mama Ngina Waterfront park is to be open and not restrictive. For people to have an environment that is beautiful and safe, eco-sustainable and orderly. We have provided 77 custom-made stalls for traders and food vendors,” he said.
Being open 24-hours a day, the park is well lit with strategically placed security lighting, a police post and public toilets.
Major additions to the project will be done in the near future. Included in the redesign are a jetty for water taxis, and three restaurants to supplement the food vendors.
“There are three spaces we have been identified for restaurants. They are all for Swahili-themed restaurants with an ocean view. They will be leased out to people who have the resources and experience,’’ said Mr Athman.
Eventually, the management park’s board will engage a service provider to provide garbage collection, a service currently offered by the National Youth Service personnel who are also providing security and cleaning.
The Mama Ngina Waterfront park is the first public landscaped waterfront. The central government has plans to redevelop the Jomo Kenyatta public beach in northern mainland of Mombasa, the Malindi waterfront, and others in Naivasha and Kisumu on lakes Naivasha and Victoria respectively.