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Frere Town bears cloud of bondage and freedom

Thursday June 13 2019

The bell at Kengeleni, Frere

The bell at Kengeleni that used to warn people when Arab slave ships were sighted. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

DIANA MUTHEU
By DIANA MUTHEU
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FARHIYA HUSSEIN
By FARHIYA HUSSEIN
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Did you know that the Kenyan coast was a major transit point for slaves captured from different parts of Africa and taken to the main market in Zanzibar in the 19th century?

The town bears testimony to horrific trade are still evident in Frere Town, in Kisimani, on the Mombasa-Malindi highway.

It was established as a settlement for freed slaves from Nyasaland (now Malawi), Southern Rhodesia (Zambia), Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and (Southern Tanganyika) Tanzania.

The town was named after Sir Bartle Frere, who played a crucial role in ending the slave trade. Near the town was a large well (kisima in Kiswahili), from which the area derives the name Kisimani.

Village elder John Thoya Hari, whose grandparents were from Nyasaland, said the settlement initially sat on many acres of land between Kengeleni, Mkomani, Nyali and Junda in Mishomoroni.

“However, in 1830, the freed slaves were resettled, and their descendants now occupy about 50 acres in the new Frere Town in Kisimani,” he offered.

KENGELENI

He said that the huge bell at Kengeleni near the Kongowea market is a constant reminder of the slavery era, during which it was rang to warn people when Arab slave ships were sighted.

Mr Thoya added that the residents built Emmanuel Church, among the first Anglican churches in the country, in 1875 near the bell.

After the abolition of the slave trade, the bell was used to summon the residents for worship.

A school was also built for the residents. “The men were taught technical work such as masonry while the women knitted dolls and mats,” he added.

Despite having intermarried with the local communities, Mr Thoya said, Frere Towners are proud of their unique identity.

“The population of Frere Town is about 5,000 people. Most of them are Christians and they interact with the Mijikenda, whose culture is similar to theirs. Kiswahili is the common language in the community,” Mr Thoya added.

Common names among the Wanyassa (from Malawi) include Manasse, Mbotela, Gondwe, Kapeku and Uledi.

CHANDARIA HALL

Mr Thoya says that members of the community frequently meet at Chandaria Hall to catch up.

They also hold social activities such as “chama” meetings and communal festivals in the hall.

Social activities, and especially weddings and funerals, bring the community closer together, Mr Thoya says.

Frere Town

An image of Chandaria Social Hall in Frere Town captured on June 12, 2019. Members of the community frequently meet at hall to touch base with one another. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Chandaria Hall was initially a nursery school, and the colourful letters of the alphabet, though faded, are still evident on the walls.

Notably, although the community has lived in the country for more than a century and intermarried with other community’s, its member feel they have been marginalised.

“We are an historical village, but we have been sidelined. I doubt whether the rich history of the community has been recorded by the government to enable future generations to trace their roots,” Mr Thoya said.