I took off from Nairobi ensconced in the apparent comfort of a very expensive bus company. After paying 1,700 shillings the previous day, I had been anticipating an ultra-comfortable bus. After all, this amount was almost fifty percent more than the usual bus fare from Nairobi to Mombasa. But there I was, seated in a bus whose leg room was ample but hip room not so ample. The rather narrow chairs were a far cry from the often wide chairs of other cheaper buses that I had previously travelled with.
My seatmate wasn’t slender, which left me pushed into an even narrower space. So I did what I often do when am travelling and leaned against the window before sinking into a near instant deep sleep that was only interrupted when a bus hostess offered me a glass of apple juice one hour later. I must have finished it in two gulps because my seatmate shot me a look of barely disguised bewilderment.
Thankfully, our arrival in Mombasa seven hours later wasn’t met with the usual blanket of humidity. The coldish breeze slapped my face and I grinned in return. This is the grin that my sister Charity saw when she matched into the waiting room within minutes of our arrival. After the cheery ‘what’s up siz, hey bro,’ we walked to the Crown bus stage to pick up our sister Gish who had also arrived in Mombasa for a week-long holiday.
We burst into laughter as soon as she emerged from the bus with a huge rucksack dangling from her back and a puffy sack drooping from her right hand. She never cares that people will wonder what the cute lady is doing with an ugly sack. I admire the fact that Gish simply lives her life, unconcerned with public opinion. Back at St Georges High School during visiting days, she would happily devour the traditional vegetables that we took to her even as her classmates chomped on pizzas and hamburgers.
Breakfast at Charity’s small but cozy house was a delicious affair. Resting on her black wooden coffee table, waiting to be devoured by three hungry siblings, was a large plastic plate of viazi karai (potato fries), coconut-flavored mbaazi (pigeon peas), ginger tea and sizzling chapatis. Oh happy day. There are few things in life that make me as happy as hot delicious meals and if this breakfast was an indicator, then I was in for a delicious coastal treat.
I was scheduled to be in Mombasa Island for only one day, so I had crammed as much activity and rest as possible into the day. This included swimming at the public Kenyatta beach; snacks of mshakiki (roast beef pieces dangling on darkened wires) in Mombasa’s ever present open air restaurants and thirsty sips of madafu (coconut water) directly from young coconuts as we watched ships crawling by at Mama Ngina street.
‘Can we board those ships?’ Charity wanted to know.
‘By the way!’ Gish added gleefully before I could answer, ‘let’s go and board one of those ships!’
She had infectious enthusiasm and for a fleeting moment, I actually imagined that it was possible to hail one of those ships and get on board. But of course it wasn’t. It set me thinking – why couldn’t commoners like us board a ship from Mombasa to Malindi, Lamu or anywhere on the Kenyan coast? How come God had gifted us with such a beautiful ocean that we never used for public transportation along Kenya’s coast? I remembered how I had immensely enjoyed a dinner cruise along River Nile right at the heart of Cairo just two years earlier.
I had also enjoyed a similar cruise along the Elbe River in Germany’s northern City of Hamburg. But here in Mombasa, I couldn’t really go for such cruises. It should be possible for Kenyans and visitors to the coast to take affordable cruises to different destinations along our coast.
Just one year later, I would stand with my new girlfriend in the same street and watch different ships crawl by in similar fashion. But for now, I was content to watch harbor and marine delights together with my two younger sisters. Like all my siblings, they are hilarious and we kept laughing making a passerby stare at one of the ships, wondering what was so funny about it. What the stocky passer-by didn’t understand was that we were not really laughing at the ship but at life. If you stare long enough at life, you will never miss a reason to laugh. Ever.
In the morning, it was time to depart from Mombasa for Lamu Island, my new second home. If only there was a ship from Mombasa to this beautiful Island… I thought as I pushed my eighty-five kilos into another narrow window seat.
The sights that greet your eyes as soon as you arrive at Lighthouse on Mama Ngina Street are breathtaking. The ocean breeze is refreshing. As you feel it wipe away the sweat that lingers on your forehead even though the sun has already set, you smile at the sights before you. They are marine sights of the marine city. Armies of waves plummet the shores beneath you. They howl a swooshing music that makes you nod silently as you sip madafu, natural coconut water. Without warning, a sharp honk slices through the atmosphere, jolting you.
As you look upwards, towards the source of the noise, you can’t help but smile widely at yet another marine sight. A massive dark ship is making its way past Lighthouse towards the harbor. You marvel at its sheer size and wonder how it manages to float on water. You can tell by the glittering wording on its side and waving tourists on board that it is a cruise ship. As it cruises past, you catch some movement in the waters below and realize that a shoal of fish is racing near the water surface. The harmony between the fish and the ship appears to be choreographed into a beautiful marine orchestra.
A marine city draws the bulk of its livelihoods and very essence from the marine ecosystem. Renowned for its port, smooth beaches and marine attractions, Mombasa is a classic marine city. For centuries, it has been home to sterling marine orchestras like the one that is playing out as the ship cruises by.
The waving tourists in the cruise ship were part of the 20.3 million passengers that cruised globally in 2013. Out of these, 17 million sailed from North America. Sadly, only few of these tourists end up in Mombasa, with many going to the Caribbean, which accounted for 37.3% of all global itineraries in 2013. This is partly because Caribbean countries benefit from home-porting, with many cruise ships based there.
Mombasa, East and Central Africa’s premier marine city, should have a much higher percentage of cruise ships based and arriving there because nature has already made it the port of choice. Kenya doesn’t experience cyclones, hurricanes or winter, making the country as a whole and Mombasa in particular a perfect destination all year round.
Apart from perfect climatic conditions, Mombasa has history on its side. As far back as the fifteenth century, Duarte Barbosa, the Portuguese voyager clearly wrote that Mombasa ‘…is a place of great traffic and has a good harbor in which there are always moored small craft of many kinds and also great ships…’
There are few other ports globally that can boast of having had great traffic and great ships back in the medieval period! Back then, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese vessels docked on Mombasa in search of precious goods that were bought and sold at the coast. They included spices, gold and ivory, making Mombasa the place to be if you wanted to make serious money.
Today, Mombasa port may not be a key global player but it can be. Tonnes of cargo still pass through it every year. After port expansion earlier this year, its cargo is projected to grow by 6.3 percent this year. More cargo means more trade activity and more money. Yet none of this could happen if Mombasa wasn’t a marine city that is right next to the Indian Ocean.
Mombasa’s marine ecosystem is also home to marine life like fish. Just like cruise ships and port cargo, fishery is another multi-million dollar industry. Global marine fisheries provide food security for over one billion people. Half of this people are like Mombasa residents – they live next to the ocean and rely on it for fish and other related forms of livelihoods. World fisheries generate an annual profit of US$8 billion. In the course of generating these profits, 170 million jobs are supported directly and indirectly.
Unfortunately, Mombasa’s share of these massive fishery profits is quite minimal. Although it is the gateway into East and Central Africa, Mombasa is not the fishing capital of the region. Most of the fish that is sold and consumed in Mombasa is bought elsewhere in places like Lamu, Shimoni and Vanga. Although Mombasa comprises only a small percentage of Kenya’s 650 km long coast, it is the hub of fishing trade in the country. It however has not fully maximized this fishery hub status.
Currently, the fisheries sector contributes about 5 percent to the GDP. Mombasa has a capacity of doubling this contribution both through production and coordination. It should capitalize on the fact that all of Kenya’s marine fish and sea food comes from Coastal Kenya.
As marine fish, molluscs and crustaceans swim in the deeps of the Indian Ocean, local and domestic tourists swim closer the smooth, white beaches of Mombasa. It is early morning and an American couple on their honey moon can be seen sitting cross-legged on the beach, staring in amazement at the rising sun. She thanks him for the best trip of her life and he thanks her for the best moment of his life. They look at each other momentarily and shift their gaze back to the rising sun, captivated by its beauty.
It is such mesmerizing natural beauty that makes Mombasa the preferred tourist destination in Kenya. In 2010, the hotel bed occupancy in Kenya’s beach hotels, many of which are in Mombasa, was more than three million. These tourists come from far and wide mostly drawn by the smooth, white beaches and singing waves that anchor the marine city status of Mombasa.
In 2011, there were 983 million tourist arrivals worldwide. Europe accounted for more than half of these tourist arrivals. Last year in 2012, international tourism generated US$1.3 trillion in export earnings. In the first half of this year, the number of international tourists grew by 5 percent with 747 million international tourist arrivals. This growth was however spurred by strong tourism performances in Europe, Asia and the Pacific plus the Middle East.
It is time for Mombasa to step up its game and post a strong tourism performance globally. It is time for Mombasa to give millions more the best trips and best moments of their lives.