A young girl in a pink hijab squeals with glee as she races her brother down the narrow streets of Old Town. Groups of men in thobes exchange stories while they walk to mosque. A man gets his head shaved in a crumbling roadside barbershop. Sunburnt tourists in oversized hats wipe sweat from their brows as they peruse the spice market.
This is Mombasa.
Earlier this month, I took the Madaraka Express train southbound with two objectives: to meet my colleagues at Nation’s Mombasa office, and to see the Indian Ocean.
Nairobians had told me of Mombasa - a land where the coconuts abound, the call to prayer surrounds, and the people speak a pure form of Swahili.
But no amount of tales could have prepared me for the magic of Mombasa.
Within ten minutes of my arrival, I knew there was much more to Kenya’s second-largest city than beaches and Fort Jesus.
The first thing that caught my eye was the prominence of tuk-tuks. These feisty, three-wheeled vehicles can be found sharing the roads with matatus, cows, bicycles, and cars. In my opinion, they’re the best way to experience the city. Not only can they bypass most traffic jams (albeit through some questionable sidewalk manoeuvres), but their window-free structure permits passengers to experience sights, sounds and scents more authentically.
CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
Mombasa is home to a plethora of high-end resorts and hotels with sparkling clean facilities. But travelling via a tuk-tuk is a reminder that the area is not all sea breeze and eucalyptus-scented spas; many parts of Mombasa lack waste collection services. In a tuk-tuk, you experience the range of smells; when you inhale inequality, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to it.
Mombasa’s juxtapositions don’t just reflect socioeconomic differences; they also reveal a rich history of cultural and religious exchange that shine through in day-to-day interactions.
During my week at Nation’s Mombasa office, I met colleagues who were devout Christians and Muslims. One colleague kept a Quran at his desk, while another kept a Bible in his car. On one occasion, I overheard them having a friendly conversation about how Muslim men are expected to greet women who are not their relatives.
Our Christian colleague was genuinely curious about the norms, and our Muslim colleague happily answered his questions over a cup of tea. The conversation was so casual, that it gave me hope for parts of the world where religion continues to be an unnecessarily divisive topic.
Of course, conversations in Mombasa do not stop at religion. In my short time there, I found that everyone - from taxi drivers to security guards, shopkeepers to building cleaners - was keen to chat. In speaking with them, I got the sense that life should be lived a little more slowly, and a little more intentionally, than we do in Nairobi.
On one of my last days in Mombasa, I asked some friends to teach me insults in Swahili.
“So that I can know when people are speaking badly about me,” I joked. But my friends refused. Instead, they taught me a phrase that - more appropriately - reflects my feelings towards the beautiful coastal city. Nakupenda. I love you, Mombasa.