Rupi?” exclaims the man looking up from the hammerhead shark he’s measuring on the sand in Kipini.
It’s been 14 years since we met in Kipini, a little village that still has no electricity, paved roads or running water. Yet the village at the mouth of the Tana Delta is very charming.
Awadh Mbarak Mbarak is a shark researcher with the Kenya Fisheries Research Institute (Kefri). He has much to tell and wants to show us Ozi Forest and talk about the sharks.
He’s concerned about the big Chinese and Korean ships sailing within the 200 nautical miles in Kenyan waters and over-fishing. It’s an international issue as the oceans are being swept clean by the enormous trawlers that catch everything – including threatened species of turtles, fish and whales, besides destroying the fragile coral reefs.
Awadh’s also concerned about the mangrove forest around Kipini and the rate at which the trees are being illegally felled for building jahazis and construction. I ask about Zuleikha, the Arab woman with whom I spent a few evenings on the dunes watching the sunset.
“She passed away a few days ago,” Awadh tells me.
Zuleikha was a young woman who traced her ancestry to Asia and Arabia. I was fascinated by her stories and I stand by her grave with beautiful memories.
Nearby lies a trio of much older graves of British colonial officers. All died young. The story is that in the then far-flung and hard-to-reach outpost, the officers went into depression, plagued by loneliness and illness, and committed suicide.
The coral tombstones are barely legible but Awadh knows what’s written as he reads one – Gilford George born in Wilts, England, died at the age of 26 in 1915. Another tombstone has been desecrated.
A few steps away is the century-old colonial administration building where the officers must have worked. The double-story building is in ruins but the walls are intact, almost two feet thick.
Outside are the mounts of the two cannons long disappeared and the blue ocean beyond. In the 1860s, the sultan of Witu had a canal cut across the swamps between Kipini and the Ozi stream to irrigate his vast plantations.
Then in 1892, according to the coffee-table book Kenya, The Magic Land, the mighty Tana flooded and poured its waters into the canal and from then on the canal, now a permanent river, drains into the Indian Ocean from Kipini.
It has been an exciting to sail upstream in the Tana Delta, one of the most pristine areas in the world.
We’ve seen crocodiles diving into the river, hordes of hippos in the hippo lake, Goliath herons, African fish eagles and hundreds of the white-faced whistling ducks as well as a surreal forest with date-laden palms showing through the mangroves.
No wonder it’s an Important Bird Area. And for communities like the Orma, Pokomo, Watta and Wardei, the Tana Delta is sacrosanct; it’s their home.
Editor’s note: The clashes that are currently taking place in the Tana delta erupted a few weeks after the end of this trip. We pray for peace amongst all the communities living in the area, and hope to be able to encourage more people to visit the area for its tourism potential once peace is restored.