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Pwani Si Kenya

Despite years of development promises from Kenya’s central government, the Coast remains a diverse and contested space where the modernising aims of the nation state translate as a hybrid of postcolonial predicaments and targets of resentment and resistance. Ngala Chome traces the fraying threads of her own family dynamics, suggesting that the Coastals are not swallowing the bait, hook, line and sinker.

Since Kenyan independence, the Coast, as a cultural, religious and political entity, has been the Other, constructed as different from the rest of Kenya. It is a place not of work, but of holiday, a tourist’s dream, for corrupt bureaucrats, Italian fugitives and middle-class Nairobians. The state has refused to solve the land problem and land in the Coast is cheap. A place like this, where leaders from Nairobi visit only in their casual clothing, cannot have real people with real political aspirations and needs. Instead it is inhabited by smiling servants and beach-boys. And because Kenya is a secular country only in a nominal sense, with a political culture infused with Christian language and imagery, the Coast has become a black spot within the Kenyan imaginary.

However, the Coast is a region of diversity, a contested space even from within. Perhaps, this is its single most notable feature. My family’s story refuses to fit within the unifying, monolithic stereotypes, in some ways forming a microcosm of a broader regional narrative of religious and cultural diversity, as well as of shifting contours of peace, tolerance, coexistence and tension.

Recent political and religious trends have given rise to tension. I am beginning to see parallels between these broader discourses and what is now happening between Babu, my grandfather, and my mother, his daughter. When I was old enough, Mama told me about her Muslim family, and how, faced with a future of early marriage, she had decided to choose the path of Christianity. She worked hard and was able to join a Christian boarding school, after which she enrolled at the University of Nairobi. Her two sisters and one brother refused to pursue a similar path, fearing alienation from their family and their proud Islamic heritage. From a very early age, her brother, my uncle, refused secular education. My aunties married into Swahili families in Mombasa. Mama married a Christian civil servant, Aba, whose dreams were part of the Kenyan national trajectory manifested in Nairobi.

My paternal grandfather, the father of educated and accomplished bureaucrats, was the patriarch of a notable Mijikenda Christian family. He grew up in a Catholic mission centre that taught Christianity, education and hard work. His only existing photograph reveals a tight-lipped man, adorned with a colonial British hat and with a tobacco pipe in hand. He later served the mission as Master of schools in Kilifi district, which borders Mombasa, where he preached the virtues of Christianity and Western education. His sons and daughters would later become prominent sons of the soil, proudly joining the independence project and assuming important positions in government.

Babu, on the other hand, made different choices. He moved from his home in Kilifi district to Mombasa, where he eventually converted to Islam. This movement, from the Coastal hinterland to the Coastal towns of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, was very common during the colonial period, but irked both colonial and traditional authorities in the “native” reserves of Kilifi and Kwale. The authorities felt that young Mijikenda men who migrated to the town were getting exposed to foreign influences and hence becoming less authentically Mijikenda. Most of all they were seen like all youth that are not under control: as potential vehicles for disorder, crime, unsuitable political affiliations – in short, a threat to “order”.

Many years later, Babu’s choices seem to have come back to complicate my relationship with my Muslim, Swahili cousins. Take Hamisi for example, the firstborn son of Mama’s brother. He would take me to play football around old town Mombasa, with his other Swahili friends. We were close. But Mama cautioned that I shouldn’t follow in his footsteps. Hamisi had dropped out of school in standard three, proceeding with madrassa, and later begun earning a living from fishing. A few years later, we had become so different, so unrecognisable to each other – separated by forces of chance that led us to different understandings of the world. By the age of 22, he was married with two children. I was a broke law student at Moi University. With the exception of Hamisi, I know almost nothing about my cousins.

Historians writing about the Coast have argued that its population is largely one of multiple and overlapping moral ethnicities. Indeed, there exists substantial inter-comprehensibility; a Chonyi woman will converse with her Giriama husband, in both dialects, without too much trouble. But rather than celebrating this diversity and its amicability with each other, the latent differences are always highlighted within the Mijikenda. For example, that the Duruma are matriarchal while the rest of the Mijikenda are patriarchal is a constant everyday refrain.

Regardless of these differences, there have been communal attempts amongst the Mijikenda to maintain coherence in the context of the incoming forces of foreign religions and capital, and of the marginalising tendencies of Kenya’s increasingly fierce ethnicised politics. This has spurred the Mijikenda to pursue unity, even amongst “modernised” and Christianised Giriamas like my father and his brothers.

Nightlife in Mombasa is many things. I am at the new Sheba lounge situated in the city’s up-town neighbourhood, Nyali. What has been said and written about Mombasa (unchanging and backward) does not begin to describe what I see of the place. There is a surprising atmosphere of cosmopolitanism and liberation. It almost seems as if competing ideas that have been clashing for an extended period of time in Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq and Palestine still find a way of coexisting peacefully in Mombasa. In the club the Muslim and Christian middle class, young and old, all attempt to strike a tolerant chord in the somewhat bubbly scene, but one feels an underlying tension. The bartender confirms this. When I ask him about protests that have recently occurred in Mombasa, he says, “Coastals tend to be too nice sometimes, they enjoy partying rather than complaining and protesting, but of late something seems to be changing.”

At Babu’s house, we sit on a wooden bench, under a shed of coconut reeds, next to the famous Fort Jesus in the old part of town. The shed usually serves as a coffee place, where people gather to play a game of draughts and listen to the day’s news. But since it is still early in the day, we are seated here alone. For me, nothing is more symbolic and representative of the times than the bold graffiti on the scruffy walls of the Fort claiming that Pwani Si Kenya, the Coast is not Part of Kenya. Except for some weight loss, increasing baldness and slower speech, Babu hasn’t changed much since my last visit. Before I ask anything, he begins to narrate his early life – his pleasing Swahili accent giving his sentences metre and a soothing, singsong rhythm.

He says that when he was in his 20s, he came to Mombasa with one of his uncles, who was already living there, to find casual work at the Kilindini Harbour. He would work a day, he says, and receive the day’s wage, then go home and never return to work until he ran out of money. He eventually got tired of life in the village, and joined a dance group called Beni. At this point, he began spending time with the group gallivanting through Coastal towns. Refusing employment as a clerk or dock worker, he converted to Islam. He came in contact with wealthy patrons in Mombasa who assured him of a place to stay, to farm, and of the bride wealth needed to marry.

Babu says that when he was growing up it was easier to live in Mombasa if you were a Muslim. But not a Mijikenda, a native. Because if you were a native and could not produce evidence that you were employed and earning a wage in town, you would be repatriated to the reserve. So he even picked up a new Muslim name, Juma Bakari, and became a person of the town, a Muslim, even an Arab.  No one seems to remember his Mijikenda name.

My paternal grandfather, the Christian missionary teacher, would be heard referring to people like Babu as “Waswahili”, or sometimes he would drily refer to them as “people with no tradition”. Tradition in this case meant being a member of a tribe, with shared culture, history, and possibly a chief – like the famous Kenyan colonial chiefs Koinange and Waruhiu of the upcountry Kikuyu. But Babu refused his traditions, and reoriented his interactions mostly towards other Swahili or Arab patrons in Mombasa, rather than towards his Mijikenda family in Kilifi.  As a Muslim Swahili, ideas of permanent employment and pensions, trousers and speaking English became laughable and useless to Babu, and would only bring mockery, including subtle communal banishment. Many others like him from the inland parts of the Coast refused to buy into the British modernising visions. And for them, Mombasa became a place of resistance, and of celebration of the alternative national project.

Unlike many other Kenyan towns up-country, Mombasa had a modern history that preceded the coming of the British. After the great 19th century expansion in East African trade, Mombasa was home to wealthy patrons from Oman who were capable of offering food security, work and accommodation to people of the immediate hinterland. This was how Babu gained membership in an alternative and “civilised” world inimical to British modernity – one that was opposed to the aims of the evangelical civilising mission aimed at Africans. It is from Babu’s story that I begin to understand a particular revulsion that was emerging in the Kenyan Coast towards the technologies of a new and “modernising” power, founded upon the work contract, the notion of “decency”, family and urban planning, commercial agriculture, identity fixing and Christianity. This would later serve as the foundation of Coast opposition to the development aims of the nation-state.

Babu’s new world was, and still is, closer to the Middle East – culturally, politically and spiritually – than it is to Nairobi and the up-country. The fact that my mother chose to embrace the Christian modernising project affected her relationship with Babu. The tension between them spiked recently with the emergence of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), radical clerics and extra-judicial killings. These times have threatened the existence of the Kenyan state, with the MRC demanding secession of the Coast from the rest of Kenya, and radical clerics from Mombasa advocating for the establishment of a caliphate – and being professionally assassinated by suspected agents of the state for their efforts.

Babu’s choices during the colonial period influenced the form and content of his postcolonial predicaments. Postcolonial Kenya was a Kenya of agro-commercialisation, trousers, English and secular education. People like him would soon find little space in modern Kenya. Things were also changing after independence. At the Port of Mombasa, where Babu had become accustomed to the endless availability of casual work, Luo, Kikuyu and Kamba from up-country were beginning to exercise dominance. After they had failed in recruiting permanent Coastal labour, the British managers of the port turned to up-country male labour. These men would also easily accept permanent employment and settle in Mombasa. Their presence would soon begin to be felt by the locals in the corruption and consequent commercialisation of Coastal recipes, in new dress codes not amenable to local culture, and in their domination of local politics.

A few powerful Arabs in Mombasa became angered by these incoming and somewhat dynamic up-country groups.  Along with their clients they initiated and supported a distinctively Muslim political agenda, demanding that the Coast become a separate state. Even though they failed to attract the support of the Mijikenda in their secessionist claim, the arguments they made against unity with the rest of the country have been recently rearticulated, more than 50 years later.

Babu adds, “You see, we had already seen what the up-country people would do to us. So we were never interested in becoming Kenyans, or joining the government. But your people, the Mijikenda, who were led by Ngala, were interested in that so we lost. But now the Mijikenda have learnt. They are now saying that the Coast is not part of Kenya.” Babu’s reference to the Mijikenda as the “other”, not where he also came from, surprises me.

After independence, Babu moved to Lamu, where one of his patrons in Mombasa had a plot of land and a house. He moved with his family – my mother, her sisters and her brother. While in Lamu, he became a fisherman. But life got tougher, as state agents suspected fishermen in the Lamu archipelago of harbouring elements of the Shifta insurgency, one of the earliest violent outbursts against the Kenyan postcolonial state in the 1960s. So he was arrested a few times, amongst other hardships. His wife, my grandmother, would die on her way to the nearest hospital, which was in Malindi, the next town on the mainland – 137 km away from where they lived. Babu refused to marry a second wife and his older sisters and brothers raised his three children. My mother moved from Lamu and enrolled at a Christian boarding school which sponsored her studies, rejecting the life her father had chosen.

With the problems of the Shifta War and increasing marginalisation from Christian Kenya, anger and despair grew in Lamu and on most of the Coast, especially amongst young Muslim men. Babu says he began listening to the sermons of a new breed of ulama, who were returning to the Coast from the Islamic world – Zanzibar, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen – and preaching against the existing form of East African Islam in the 1970s and 1980s. These new teachers preached that Islam at the Kenyan Coast had veered away from the teachings of the Qur’an. Religion became the only way out for Babu and many others. He went back to Mombasa and became a devout Muslim, a follower of some Wahhabi preachers on the Coast and much later, an ustadh, an Islamic teacher.

Some of his students later became Kenya’s most well-known Salafist clerics. Their theology mostly articulated local grievances within a global framework. Reference was made to the persecution of Muslims in Palestine and Afghanistan, similar to the constant arrests made, in Mombasa, of Muslim clerics during the days of the unregistered Islamic Party of Kenya in the 1990s. It was during this time that I remember Babu’s visits to Nairobi, and the jokes that brought laughter to our otherwise quiet and “orderly” middle class home. He disagreed with Salafist teachings, but the younger generation had already picked this up. Feeling that they had been refused participation in formal and Christian Kenya, most of this generation joined Al Shabaab.

I ask Babu about Hamisi. He remains silent, his face takes on a sombre expression and then he says in a low tone, “I haven’t seen Hamisi for about six months.” People who were with Hamisi have told Babu that he was arrested by plain-clothes policemen a few days after the Mpeketoni attack. During the attack, about 50 gunmen drove into the coastal town less than 40 miles from the Somali border. They spent five hours killing about 100 people and destroying property. A day later, Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack.

Babu says that two of my other cousins, who must be in their teens, were also arrested by the General Service Unit for attending a suspected Al Shabaab convention. At this juncture in our conversation, I am no longer filled with curiosity. Or sadness. Or self-pity. I am filled with terror.

Babu says that since these recent events, it has been very difficult for my mother and him to relate amicably. They belong to parallel worlds that have become antagonistic to each other. Babu says that my mother is siding with the oppressor, the kaffirs, who are arresting and tormenting his grandchildren. I think about them and how young they are in the knowledge of violence and aggression.  Many other young people like them have participated in violent riots in Mombasa, and even burned down a church, immediately after a certain sheikh was shot and killed.

This is Mombasa today. Fragile and unstable. Since 2002, the national government has offered promising visions for the future: a free port, a city master plan, a standard gauge railway. The youth have been asked to wait, told that the jobs will come. But in a society built on a history of oppression and marginalisation, promising visions of the future become too simplistic. People have become accustomed to treat with suspicion anything originating from the rest of Kenya and the central government.

The Coast in general, and Mombasa in particular, has for a considerable time constituted a space of interspersing narratives of multiple grievances – a place harbouring a certain kind of social crisis. The Mijikenda fight for jobs and resource allocation against dynamic and aggressive up-country immigrants; Arabs and Swahilis decry the increasing dominance of outsiders and erosion of their culture, with outsiders attempting to remake the town in their own image.

The bonds that have held Mombasa and the Coast together in the past are now rapidly loosening, just like the bond between Babu and Mama.


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This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?

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