Battle of Fort Jesus shows how we’re an insult to our heritage

Saturday January 13 2018

Fort Jesus

Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho with National Lands Commission Chairman Dr Muhammad Swazuri lead other officials to the Fort Jesus sea front where they stopped construction of a sea wall bordering Fort Jesus Museum on January 11. The leaders claim the construction seeks to reclaim more than two acres of land against an earlier agreement. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Unless it is protected, Mombasa’s Fort Jesus, a World Heritage Site monument, will in some years tip over into the Indian Ocean. That is bad news – and scientists have warned as much.

Both Ali Hassan Joho, the Mombasa governor, and Mohammed Swazuri, the chairman of the National Land Commission, do not seem to understand this. And this week, the duo emerged to stop the construction of a wall that would protect this heritage site from sea waves citing technicalities.

Unless we do something — and I am not taking brief for the National Museums — we might end up mourning like Malta and Italy.

Once upon a time, Malta Island’s Azure Window, a 28-metre natural arch, was until March 2017 the island’s major tourist attraction and the filming location of the Game of Thrones, the American fantasy drama television series created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. 

Azure Window was also the marketing asset of the island and also featured in the movies: Lash of the Titans and The Count of Monte Cristo which earned it celebrity status. But on that day, the morning of March 17, 2017 during a stormy weather, the tourist landmark finally collapsed forcing the people to reflect on the loss of a national heritage as they watched.


The Maltese — just like us — had been warned by scientists that they had to protect the rock but paid little attention. At best, they only warned tourists against walking on top of the arch, which they did anyway, and at worst, they imposed some fines. Finally, they all lived to write the epitaph: “The flagship of the Gozitan touristic sites has sunk in its same birthplace from where for thousands of years, it stood high and proud heralding one of the natural beauties our little island is endowed with.”

Again in March 1989, the world witnessed the collapse of the famous 900-year-old 25-story bell tower in the northern Italian town of Pavia. Known as the Civic Tower of Pavia, the collapse of this 16th Century mediaeval edifice, which was an illustration of the ancient and illustrious city near Milan, led to new efforts to protect the famous the Tower of Pisa, also known as the leaning tower.

Nine months after the collapse of the Civic Tower the Italians started to remove soil underneath the Tower of Pisa and they managed to straighten it by 45 centimetres which was the original 1839 position.  Scientists said that with the stabilisation, the tower would be stable for another 300 years.


Back to Mombasa, the choice on what to do with Fort Jesus lies with our generation. The rising sea levels have been eroding the coral rocks – on which it stands - and scientists argue that unless 2 acres of land is reclaimed from the ocean, the fort’s foundation, already compromised, will be weakened to an extent that Fort Jesus could fall into the sea!

That will ultimately mark the end of a huge chunk of coast tourism – whose centre-piece is this former Portuguese fort, regarded as one of the most visible early explorer citadels in Africa.

But watching the tussle between the Museums and the county government of Mombasa on how to protect this heritage is the clearest indicator on how we treat this country’s heritage and why we are unable to see the link between tourism and heritage.

A section of Fort Jesus along which the

A section of Fort Jesus along which the construction of a sea wall will pass to protect the historic site from falling into the ocean. Rising sea levels are threatening the famous site and other historic sites across the Coast region, National Museums of Kenya has warned. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

We have already lost a lot of our heritage through looting, plundering and smuggling. At times, what has not been stolen has been left to deteriorate because we have no funds to preserve endangered treasures.

At most, what we have done is to gazette sites as national monuments but put little effort to mark and promote them. Thus, historical and heritage sites have been left at the mercy of a few who have the will but no money.


When the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation offered money to turn this fort into a museum in 1961, it was Tom Mboya who led a protest in Parliament against the visit of then Portuguese Vice-President Dr Pedro Theotonio Pereira who was a trustee of the foundation and he indeed received a hostile reception in both Nairobi and Mombasa.

Lost in the protest was that the foundation was sinking some £30,000 to turn the former prison into a museum “which all civilised visitors and inhabitants of Kenya will benefit”.

The Portuguese had wanted to help in restoring their heritage along the Kenyan coast but Mr Mboya led in efforts to oppose the erection of even a Vasco da Gama statue in Malindi which was to kick-start these efforts. He said while moving a Motion in Parliament opposing Dr Pereira’s visit: “We do not recognise this Vasco da Gama and I do not see why at this particular time it was decided to build a monument for him or why this country should build any monument to him. If the British want to build a monument for Vasco da Gama, they can very well do it in Britain. In fact, I can say without hesitation that that monument will be kept or thrown somewhere very deep in sea…!

While the Vasco da Gama monument was not built, efforts were made to protect his other pillar in Malindi later on which has a symbolic Christian cross at the top.

For historians, Fort Jesus and the Malindi pillar are symbols of early commerce along the east coast of Africa and the search for the sea route from Europe to India. But to the Arabs, it has remained a symbol of conquest by the Portuguese who build Fort Jesus to lord on them.


But for conservationists, the 520-year-old pillar in Malindi, erected in 1498, remains one of the oldest European monuments in Africa! It was built here on a coral stone to mark the place where Vasco da Gama received fresh supplies, after facing hostilities in Mombasa, and to help him remember the place and the hospitality of Malindi people. The only reason that it remained here was to show those who wanted to invade Malindi that the town was under the protection of the King of Portugal. We also have the 40-seater St Francis Xavier Church, which is located a few metres from the pillar and which was restored a few years back.

Fort Jesus

Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho with National Lands Commission chairman Muhammad Swazuri at the Fort Jesus sea front where they stopped the construction of a sea wall. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

For starters, Fort Jesus attracts more than 150,000 visitors in a year and at the moment we don’t seem to take advantage of the more than 1,200 documented cultural and historical sites and monuments at the Coast since we normally underfund the Museums and we don’t have money to restore the decaying old buildings.

Already, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has warned with the climate change, and unless countries with monuments along coasts do nothing, many coastal sites of historical and cultural significance would either end up under water or collapse.

Some five years, conservationists warned the Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi was facing imminent collapse after cracks started appearing on the rock on which it stands. The National Museums was to spend Sh15 million to fortify the pillar from further damage. The scandal is that we had again approached the Embassy of Portugal to help us with Sh100 million to protect this pillar which is the historical jewel of Malindi Town.

How do we protect some of these heritage?


Two years ago, a vandal walked into Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi and destroyed the Queen Victoria statue that had been erected there since 1906.

In Nairobi’s downtown, the Tom Mboya monument has been neglected to an extent that it is now in a sorry state – an insult to a man who contributed so much to our independence.

But it is not only Mr Mboya’s monument which has been left unattended. We have had various buildings of historical nature demolished or under threat. Most of these sites are not marked and few people know their place in our history, a challenge and an opportunity to county governments and the National Museums.

Some of us were shocked when there were recent attempts to bring down a 592-year-old Masjid Mswalani mosque at the coast, perhaps the same way that Nairobi lost two major buildings: The Nairobi House at the corner of Kenyatta and Moi Avenue and the Desai Memorial Hall along Tom Mboya Street.

When you look at the Fort Smith in Kabete, the now private house, where Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga was attacked before he was deported is still standing almost neglected with zilch efforts to restore it as a tourist site.  Fort Smith was built by Captain Eric Smith but the Kikuyus proved to be unreliable in grain supply. This led to raids by caravan traders in search of grain (and women) and it sparked deep enmity.


It was due to this that an Imperial British East Africa representative George Wilson attacked Kikuyus. But in retaliation they forced him to abandon Fort Smith for Machakos. Perhaps because of this treachery, the Kikuyuland was administered from Machakos and not Fort Smith which remained unpopular. Today, neither the county government of Kiambu, nor the National Museums, has shown interest in this site though it is gazetted as a monument.

Again, we have Kiburi House, the Kirinyaga Road based centre of Mau Mau operations and the pioneer newsroom of African publications and trade unionism. I am not sure it attracts anyone because we have not made efforts to show Kenyans its significance.

In all these, the bottom line lies in the amount of money that we should put in funding conservation of our heritage.


If we are serious about promoting domestic tourism, we must do it with our history in mind too. Both our pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial sites are significant to us. And none should be neglected or removed – at the altar of politics.

Again, we do not have well marked cultural sites and Muranga’s Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga, ostensibly the origin of the Agikuyu, is one piece of neglect with abandoned structures and attempts to turn it into a tourist site.

As the Museums of Kenya fights to have its way over Fort Jesus, the onus is on the national government to come up with a funding policy that can help restore and protect our heritage. Otherwise, our sites will crumble like the Azure Window and we shall cry over spilt milk. Enough said.