From the top of a building near the Treasury Square, the historic Mombasa Old Town unfolds before your eyes and takes you into history dating hundreds of years back.
Famed as an ancient town with unique architectural designs, this protected area is featured in the city tour circuit, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Fort Jesus, a listed world heritage site, is over 400 years old.
Visitors stroll around the town and marvel at the imposing architecture of the buildings, with a mix of Arabic, Indian, Portuguese and Persian designs. But there is also a modern edifice across the channel that they admire – the luxurious English Point Marina – which partly relies on the Old Town for its marketing. Here, while a three bedroom apartment goes for as much as Sh45 million, you will cough up to Sh180 million for a five bedroom penthouse.
With a powerful pair of binoculars or a telescope, you may take a visual tour of the Old Town.
Unesco recognises the historical buildings that combine African, Arabic and European influences as the “visible aspect” of the Old Town, which is also a cultural treasure.
“Many of these buildings still exist, in beautifully carved doors as well as elegantly styled balconies attached to their turn of the century facades,” notes the UN agency.
But if you think this treasured heritage is guaranteed to last for generations, you might be in for a shock. Despite its panoramic and breathtaking view from a vantage point, something is terribly wrong. The Old Town of yesteryear is fast going into ruin.
Mr Taibali Hamzali, a member of Friends of Fort Jesus (FFJ), takes Lifestyle on a tour of the Old Town.
An architect by profession, Mr Hamzali, whose specialty is urban design, stops from time to time to admire the wooden balconies.
He particularly loves the beautiful design carvings on the wood with his favourite being the two birds facing each other in the upper tier.
The designs on the doors and impressive balconies signify the house owner’s wealth and status in the society: if they are ornate and intricate, the building was built by a wealthy individual. “Look at this structure, built in the mid-18th century. Its aesthetic beauty is still evident,” he says, his face lighting up.
The Old Town is sadly losing its shine
But this is where his pleasure ends. As we go further, he seems to be in deep thought as he surveys a couple of other buildings around.
Most of them within the conservation area are now in a pathetic state and in dire need of repair and reconstruction. The Old Town is sadly losing its shine.
As we stroll along the narrow alleys, we cannot fail to notice that the walls of most buildings have peeled off while, in some cases, whole structures have collapsed, leaving patches of empty plots with mounds of debris. The infrastructure is wanting and there are heaps of garbage all over. Sanitation and drainage is poor and the smell of raw sewage permeates the air.
This is a neglected area, despite its contribution to the tourism industry. No money is being ploughed back here, our guide points out.
Mr Hamzali, who grew up in Old Town and has fond memories of the area before the current damage, says: “Those of us who have witnessed the manner in which destruction of this heritage has happened over time — yet our pleas to save it have fallen on deaf ears — are mourning. The question we keep asking is: who will save Mombasa Old Town?”
According to Mr Hamzali, while some plots have been grabbed, a number of historical buildings have been demolished in unclear circumstances, eliciting protests from conservationists.
For example, in August 2013, one supposedly protected building at the Government Square was brought down, startling those who were determined to preserve the face of the area.
“This double-tiered balcony building, built in the late 1800s, has just been demolished. Apart from its unique architectural design, the structure was important historically as it served as the Government Treasury before a new building was constructed at the Treasury Square in the early 1900s,” the Friends of Fort Jesus said in their protest letter.
The plot has now been fenced off and, soon, a new structure will come up.
The letter went on: “The buildings are being demolished at an alarming rate. Ndia Kuu Road has lost four buildings while another one on Wachangamwe Street with a double-tiered balcony and two carved doors was demolished.”
Another imminent threat on the Old Town is that the houses are now being sold to investors who might not adhere to conservation guidelines. According to the rules, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) has to approve any new developments in the area.
While only three floors are allowed within the conservation area, the design of the structures has to be in harmony with the ancient buildings. But a casual look at the area reveals that this rule has been flouted with abandon, with several flats towering over the historic households.
NMK assistant director Athman Hussein blames this state of affairs on lack of funds to restore the structures, saying that the owners of the properties do not have money to renovate them. They also complain that despite their assets attracting visitors who pay tour operators and earn the Exchequer billions in foreign currency, there appears to be little benefit for those maintaining the buildings.
“In other countries, governments allocate funds for maintaining structures of historical heritage value. Owners of these properties threaten they are going to sell them off,” he said in an interview, and revealed that at least Sh300 million is required for reconstruction.
The last time the buildings were given a face-lift was in 2002 when the European Union gave a grant of Sh100 million, which was used to restore structures in Mombasa and Lamu old towns. The government has never allocated money for this purpose, said Mr Hussein.
Tourism stakeholders have also expressed concern at the neglect of Old Town, with Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers executive officer Sam Ikwaye saying there was a need for a system of maintaining the properties in a sustainable manner.
“There is no way we are going to keep waiting for donors to help us. The national or county government should set up a fund for the purpose. But the owners and other stakeholders who benefit from the existence of Old Town should also invest some funds and appreciate that the structures support their lives since tourism has a huge multiplier effect,” he said.
According to Mombasa Old Town Conservation Office (MOTCO), there are at least 26 buildings that are in dire need of restoration, some of them requiring total reconstruction. The buildings that hosted the first post office, a police station and a hospital are in a sorry state and could collapse if urgent measures are not taken to restore them.
Ms Fatma Twahir, the architect who is in charge at MOTCO, says the organisation has identified the buildings, but a donor who is expected to help in the reconstruction is yet to be identified.
“We play an advisory role since we don’t have funds but the buildings are deteriorating at a very fast rate and unless something is done we might lose them,” she says.
Ability to protect
Concerns have also been raised concerning MOTCO’s ability to carry out the role of protecting Old Town. At the time the EU offered a grant of Sh100 million, there were at least 10 employees working to ensure that the community was informed on the importance of conserving their houses.
At the moment, only Ms Twahir works for the organisation.
Conservationists are also concerned that the historic Fort Jesus might lose its world heritage status if destruction of the Old Town continues.
Before Fort Jesus was listed as a heritage site in 2011, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) noted in a report that the town was important for the site.
“The cultural interchange of the property (Fort Jesus) could be better understood when it is considered in close relation to its buffer zone, Mombasa Old Town, which clearly reflects in its urban and built fabric its multicultural past,” said ICOMOS.
The report noted that the buffer zone included the Old Town and the old administrative area, “designated a conservation area in 1990, because of its concentration of high-quality 18th century buildings and its historic and social links to the fort”.
According to ICOMOS, a 2003 survey of the Old Town stated that 25 per cent of the area was in a bad state.
“Additionally, there is a tendency to rebuild and renovate rather than to maintain and repair the existing heritage fabric.
This is threatening the significance of Mombasa Old Town and undermines the ability of the buffer zone to contribute to the understanding of the fort and its values and to provide it an additional layer of protection,” it said.
The international organisation recommended that members of the community should be informed on the importance of conserving the structures while the then municipal council (now county government) was asked to ensure conservation guidelines were implemented and waste-management and sanitation improved.
Mombasa county executive in charge of land Francis Thoya blamed the former municipal council for the current mess, saying there was no political will to protect the gazetted area.
The council planner ignored recommendations by the National Museums and approved plans for a number of buildings that have now been constructed and which are not in harmony with the protected zone, he said.
“Once we came into office, we agreed that we were not going to approve any plan for buildings in Old Town.
We went back six months and reviewed plans for buildings that had been approved and stopped construction of 10 buildings,” he said, adding that they had nullified construction of a multi-storeyed shopping mall whose plan had been approved.
Rising sea level at the coast threatens monuments and historical sites
HERITAGE SITES AND monuments at the coast region are threatened by rising sea level caused by global climate change.
Along the coast shoreline, Fort Jesus, built in 1593, is the latest of such sites that face challenges from changes in water level.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) world heritage site is endangered since part of its sea wall near the shoreline has been eroded by tidal waves that hit the rock supporting the monument.
The Fort, built by the Portuguese, receives between 54,668 and 65,893 adult domestic and foreign visitors annually.
National Museums of Kenya coast region assistant director Athman Hussein said the strong currents have affected many monuments and heritage sites that are spread along the shorelines from Vanga to Lamu.
Mr Hussein said the Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi is a classic case of monuments that face the impact of sea rise and is on the verge of collapse.
“The sections along the Silver Sands area that the Vasco da Gama pillar and Malindi Marine Park are situated are eroded by the sea waves and this is a challenge,” Mr Hussein said.
He said Unesco had partnered with NMK to restore the Fort Jesus walls and maintain it to remain in its current status.
Mr Hussein said other heritage sites that are under threat include a mosque at Jumba Ruins, the 16th Century Shanga monuments and the abandoned Ngomeni naval base.
“Strong sea waves from the Indian Ocean have eroded a large section of the mainland and this is a sign that the water levels are affecting the land mass,” he said.
National Museums of Kenya underwater archaeologist Caesar Bita said Ngomeni town is a victim of the adverse effects brought by climatic changes.
He said that maritime surveys carried out by scientists in recent times at the coast have established that underwater heritage is likely to be destroyed.
“The impact of the sea rise will also be felt inland and this might displace the population,” he said. “The erosion has significantly affected historical sites and settlements and we should expect conditions to be worse in the future.”
Mr Bita said the sites between Lamu and Vanga are highly at risk from the changing sea level.
“Ngomeni village is threatened and the population in the mainland is equally at risk,” he said, adding that the occurrences are happening around the globe.