This is Not a City! A Nairobian’s Letter From Mombasa Town

Mombasa City
  • As a noun, the word ‘city’ has several definitions.

    It’s a large settlement, bigger than a town; sometimes with a specific legal definition, depending on the place. Also, a settlement granted special status by royal charter or letters patent; traditionally, a settlement with a cathedral regardless of size.

    Mombasa, in a way, ticks the above two boxes. 

    In this corner of the woods, a city’s ‘royal charter’ is served as an afterthought declaration in a lengthy, roadside political speech, thus:

    “…kwa hayo machache, I declare this town a city…”

    An image of the narrow streets in Old Town, Momabsa Island. (file image)

    Mombasa, however, hardly ticks the noun’s third definition that identifies a town as a central business hub or district.

    The coastal CBD is a total mess.

    Somehow, the town passed the irreducible minimum to get a promotion to ‘city’ status.

    For instance, large Indian and Arab families live smack in the middle of the central business district.

    Digo Road is the city’s major highway – an artery connecting the island to the mainland. This ends at the city’s major roundabout near the iconic Salambo and Fontanella Clubs.

    This roundabout allows Digo Road to meet with Nkrumah Road, which flows to the monumental Fort Jesus at the beach, and, Moi Avenue, the main business artery to the port.

    On these major arteries, the region’s major banks have their branches.

    As it is, banks have their ATM lobbies opening directly on the pavement. It’s not uncommon to meet long queues on the pavement, as bank customers line up to access the ATM.  

    That’s pretty mainstream, even in other cities. But, in Mombasa, it’s not unsurprising to overhear an heated domestic argument from a balcony just above the ATM lobby.

    It’s not pretty.

    A matronly, Indian lady without warning will start berating her husband over something trivial. Perhaps, the husband has a popular social media profile – and the wife stumbles on unappropriate messages or photographs.

    If you are lining up to withdraw your money, be on the lookout for flying missiles from the balcony. The lady’s tirade may escalate to her flinging her laundry water over the balcony.

    You cannot sue – the family has owned that central Digo Road building for generations. Be grateful.

    On another day that Murphy’s Law decides to live up to its reputation, you could be cruising along Moi Avenue, in a new ride.

    After decades of piggy-bank saving, a bit of Sacco and bank financing, you have a new ride – German, I suppose.

    Suddenly, a blob of something oozy and sticky, semi-fluid stuff lands on your financed windscreen. Since the coastal town (city) is chockful of crows and ravens, you’ll think it’s a crow doing her business.

    What on earth do these birds eat – you muse, as you switch on your wipers. Bad idea – it paints it black – zero visibility.

    Stop, lest you hit a Tuk Tuk. In Mombasa, the car in front is always a Tuk Tuk.

    When you alight, you realise it’s a blob of chewed tobacco on your windshield. A Singh — turbaned, no less — is enjoying his tobacco on his balcony. He spits it straight into the tarmac.

    It’s his family house. The building’s ground floor has a Probox dealership.

    It’s good to remember, lest you forget, that the car in front is almost always a Tuk Tuk. And chances are the rickshaw is owned by our tobacco-chewing, balcony-spitting Singh.

    Mombasa City
    An image of Fort Jesus (file image)

    They are business geniuses – the Tuk Tuk empire runs better than the Chinese Kingdom.

    It’s a bright day, and a blob of sticky tobacco cannot spoil it.

    Let’s go see Old Town, you mumble to your German machine.

    As you round-about from Moi Avenue to Nkrumah Road, it’s selfish and uncouth to not admire the entrepreneural spirit of a street family that lives and farms Sukuma Wiki in the middle of the roundabout.

    This is the city’s main roundabout, remember.

    The family is very resilient. They lack a roof over their heads, but at least they have a city clock on their front yard. Luckily, it’s not a dummy. It works. 

    Where were we? Oh, ok, Old Town.

    It lives exactly to that name. It’s old. Narrow, winding streets….nay, corridors.

    Just a minute in, you’ll know by your olfactory senses that ancient architects didn’t have the basic foresight for a sewerage system.

    Those days people would run to the beach and shit in the ocean.
    Raw sewage flows on every identical narrow street, crammed with Ninja-clad women selling knock-off perfumes in miniature vials and gold-coated jewellery.

    And, surprisingly, each shop has an adorable grandmother – the family’s matron – sprawled on a sisal mat on the front veranda – chewing Miraa.

    If your beloved grandma is well, bring her to Old Town. The sight of her peers chewing khat and smoking cigarettes will set her back a few years.

    Who, pray tell, decided to upgrade this settlement into a city?