A taste of Island life
Having said that, over the last few months I’ve been exploring the island of Mombasa from along the East African coast on some projects. It’s one of the world’s oldest spaces continuously inhabited for 1,500 years, putting it in the same league as Delhi, Baghdad, Cairo, Rome and London. Whilst Mombasa isn’t unfamiliar to me, in this piece, I attempt to paint a more holistic picture of what life on this island is truly like. Well, besides the pretty boutique villas and resorts that earn it its tourist hot-spot status.
Never under-estimate the power of good food. An island with an incredible mix of culture can never be devoid of this. So naturally, Swahili cuisine is yum. It reflects the long history of conquest and occupation along the east coast – by the Portuguese, the Arabs and the British. Add the mix of Arabic and Indian influences from immigrants and traders and the result is unique and really tasty dishes. However, I’m not talking about good food in this particular way.
I’m talking more about good food that evokes comfort or brings forth pleasant memories. I’m talking the kind like eating Buyu [baobab fruit candy made from sugar and food colour paste]. It just wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t stain your lips afterwards. Or the Kahawa [coffee] and Halwa [addictive sticky sweet treat] late night rendez-vous, where I’ve enjoyed better conversations with street kids hustling for cash than I’ve had with degree and title-mongers in corporate boardrooms. Alongside dimly lantern-lit stalls along the roadside I’ve learnt about the fickleness of life.
I’m taking about the organic fruit you would quickly trade-in for the processed apples, pears and cherries bought off premium retail store shelves. This kind is bought straight from a vendor cart. Exotic fruit and juicy jam tomatoes for less than a dollar a kilo from the open air market. Where to the left, mounds of garbage leak dark juices that seep down the narrow streets and straight into your nostrils.
I love this island-style life because it has lessons of patience, despite the degree of adversity. Kind of like how its grey old buildings have stood out like solid statements of architectural defiance against the test of time. Actually, more than a sleepy town with aged buildings where life is characterized by a palpable slowness and apathy — a ghost of pre- and post colonial era glamour. From a balcony, I’ve watched people counting ships by the harbour, hands fumbling with a sense of urgency. Pulling open packets of freshly made cassava chips wrapped in old newspaper cuttings drenched in tamarind sauce, licking through the mushy parts where the printing ink has began to seep. Alas, the sea breeze comes through with the distinct aroma of skewered meat, tuk-tuk fumes and Arabian oud perfume sprayed by mysterious women clad in black bui-buis, giggling in unison. Next door, children fly kites on the balconies of high-rise buildings and others feed a day old rice to crows.