Fading away: Kenya’s Coastal historical sites in ruins

Thursday June 11 2015

Fort Jesus in Mombasa. Graffiti on the walls, erosion my sea water and a lack of funds for general repairs is affecting the museum’s operations. PHOTO | FRED OLUOCH

Tourism at the Kenya Coast is at its lowest ebb currently, and so far all the talk is about how to help hotel owners and affiliated sectors ride out the difficult times and help them rebuild for the future.

Hidden at the end of the unbeaten path, however, are important, world famous historical sites and monuments that have over the decades been neglected to the point of being lost to time.

These are the over 1,200 documented cultural and historical sites and monuments at the Coast under the National Museums of Kenya.

A tour of the major sites and monuments at the Coast reveals a sorry state of affairs, with obvious neglect having taken its toll of most of them.

For example, the base of the 15th century Fort Jesus in Mombasa is being steadily eroded by the rising sea tides and sewage from the town that flows out near the fort’s sea front.

The foundation of the Vasco da Gama Pillar in Malindi has been eroded by sea water and the pillar is hanging precariously on the cliff, despite recent restoration works by government engineers. The Jumba la Mtwana Ruins in Mtwapa are disappearing into rubble as the only standing walls are collapsing because of a lack of funds to rehabilitate the site.


READ: East Africa’s coast is slowly sinking

Other sites and monuments in need of conservation are the Rabai Church Museum in Kaloleni built by Johan Krapf in 1846, which was the first church and school to be built in East and Central Africa; the Shimoni Slave Caves in Kwale and the Gede Ruins in Watamu have also fallen into ruin.

How can we then talk of reviving tourism while we ignore the very pillar of what this tourism has been built on? Tourism at the Coast goes beyond hotel rooms and sandy beaches. It is the living past and present culture, the food, the music, the history, the people among many other things that drive it.

According to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), the shoreline heritage sites of Fort Jesus, Jumba la Mtwana and Vasco da Gama Pillar, that lie about 0-15 feet from the high water mark, suffer from natural tidal erosion and neglect. Due to a lack of maintenance funds.

Dr Purity Kiura, the NMK director of sites and monuments, noted that for the past five years, the Museums has not received funding for the conservation of sites and monuments across the country, and the money that the institution receives from the government is used to pay staff salaries, which are given priority.

The sites and monuments at the Coast need about Ksh1.5 million ($15,700) per month for conservation but NMK has to make do with about Ksh800,000.

In the 2015/2016 budget, NMK was allocated only Ksh9 million for conservation of all site and monuments in the country against the budget of Ksh800 million ($8.4 million) requested for.

NMK director-general Dr Kibunjia Mzalendo has described the funds allocation as “shocking and a disaster in the making because the government knows very well what the sites means to the country’s tourism industry.”

A few donors have continued funding conservation efforts, although the amounts have been diminishing. Notable is the long partnership between NMK and the Smithsonian Institution of the US, that has given Ksh1.5 million ($15,700), which is mainly directed at maintaining the Olorgesailie prehistoric site off the Magadi Road, south of Nairobi, globally renowned as the “factory of stone tools.”

The other key donations comes from the US Ambassador’s Fund, with $25,000 given for the Gede Ruins in 2013, $35,000 for Shimoni Slave Caves in 2012 and $70,000 for the Lamu American Corner in 2012.

Fort Jesus — one of the most famous Unesco World Heritage Sites in Kenya — lacks adequate technical expertise such as marine engineers, to assist in controlling the erosion caused by rising sea waters. Graffiti and engraving of words on the inside and outside walls of the fort is also a major problem for the NMK conservation efforts.

Visitors who illegally inscribe their names on the walls, accelerate the walls’ erosion, forcing the management to use lime powder paint to cover the graffiti to avoid further damage.

Dr Kiura said that Fort Jesus needs about Ksh20 million ($201,589) for general maintenance. “We have tried to raise the funds from Unesco and the Portuguese embassy, as well as raising the issue in parliament through the local MP, but with little success,” said Dr Kiura.

The constant threat of terrorism at the Coast also means fewer visitors to the fort and in turn a reduction of about 30 per cent in two years of revenue from the museum.

Athman Hussein, the director of Coastal sites at the NMK, said that they have not been able to change the permanent exhibitions at Fort Jesus, which have stayed the same for over 20 years, adding that this requires innovation and aggressive marketing.

“This makes the Fort less attractive to repeat and regular tourists to the country. As a result, we developed a proposal for an overhaul of the existing exhibition and bringing in a new exhibition representing the history of the Fort,” he said. They are still waiting for funds to be available.

Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese between 1593 and 1596, by the order of King Phillip 1 of Portugal, then ruler of the joint Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms.

It is strategically positioned on what was a coral reef right at the entry of the channel (later named English Channel), to guard the Old Port of Mombasa and to secure the Portuguese settlers living on the East African Coast.

The fort was designed by Italian architect and engineer Joao Batista Cairato, in the shape of a man (seen from an aerial view) and was given the name Jesus. It was the first European-style fort constructed outside of Europe and was specifically reinforced to resist cannon fired from ships that sailed in front of it up the channel.

Today, Fort Jesus is one of the finest examples of 16th century Portuguese military architecture, influenced and changed as it was by both the Omani Arabs and the British.

In Malindi, 120km north of Mombasa, the rising sea levels have caused widening cracks about 10 metres long and increased salinity due to climate change, are threatening to bring down the over 500-year old Vasco da Gama pillar.

Built in 1498 by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the pillar marks the explorer’s last stop on Africa’s eastern seaboard before he sailed across the Indian Ocean to India. It is one of the oldest European monuments in Africa and older than Fort Jesus. It is one of the leading tourist attractions in Malindi, besides the marine park.

Dr Kiura said that an evaluation done by government engineers a year a go showed that if the cracks reach the base of the pillar, its stability will be seriously compromised. The evaluation results were sent to Unesco, which is still fundraising for the restoration works. 

“The longer the pillar is not rehabilitated, the more the base is eroded. It is being eroded from underneath and the metal reinforcements that were put in by government engineers are rusting and eating into the concrete base,” she said. The pillar needs between Ksh20 million ($201,589) and Ksh50 million ($503,972) for restoration works.

Jumba la Mtwana, which means “the large house of the slave” in Swahili, is one of the surviving historical ruins dating back to the 14th century. Sitting on a 40-acre beach front piece of land in Mtwapa, north of Mombasa, the archaeological site receives between 300 and500 visitors per month, the majority of whom are schoolchildren on educational tours.

The ruins are in a secluded stretch of beach front famous for being the rare sea turtles’ annual nesting site and is considered the last safe haven of the Hawksbill and Green Turtles in the region.

The archaeological ruins feature four mosques, a tomb and four houses that are still in recognisable condition, but some of the walls are crumbling because of lack of maintenance. These houses are identified as the House of the Cylinder, The House of the Kitchen, The House of the Many Pools, which had three phases, and the Great Mosque. The inhabitants of this town were mainly Muslims as evidence by the mosque ruins. The Muhrab facing Mecca is still standing.

Ali Makame, the clerical officer of the site, said the ruins still stand a chance of being a major tourist and historical attraction in Mombasa if well maintained, and can compete with Fort Jesus in visitor numbers because of the serene atmosphere. The ruins have an arboretum, a picnic site and a private and secure beach for visitors.

However, the rising sea level is eroding the ruins’ walls on the seafront while a section of the land has been grabbed by people who claim to have a title deed.

In Kaloleni, 25km northwest of Mombasa, the Rabai Church Museum is recognised as the first stop where Christianity and European education in Kenya took root well over 150 years ago. 

Built in 1846 as the first church edifice in Kenya, Rabai remains an important historical monument in East and Central Africa. The Krapf Memorial Museum — standing beside the church — was founded in 1994 as a historical monumental to events during the advent of the early missionaries.

The museum, with makuti and iron sheets for roofing needs regular restoration work before and after the rainy season to control damage caused by leaks. Including general repairs, the museum needs about Ksh500,000 ($5,000) annually.

On the other hand, the Gede ruins in Watamu, which are remains of a Swahili town typical of most towns along the East African Coast, traces its origin to the 12th century. But it was rebuilt with new town walls in the 15th and 16th centuries.

This rebuilding is connected with the emigration of many citizens to this town from of the kingdom of Kilwa in southern Tanzania and from Mombasa, Malindi and other places along the Coast. With its numerous inhabitants, the town became wealthy and it reached its peak in the 15th century.

The Gede ruins are spread over 45 acres of indigenous forest and comprise a number of mosques; a palace and residential houses. Gede remains an important archaeological site and the indigenous forest is a sacred site for traditional rituals for the Mijikenda community.