SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
February 08, 1982
From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway
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February 08, 1982

Passage To The Past

From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway

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"Apart from the fort, you don't see much Portuguese influence left on the coast," says Rodwell. "Before World War II, though, they still held bullfights on the island of Pemba. I photographed one once. They would bring out the bull, on a rope, throw it down and shout obscenities in its ear. Quite colorful. That's about the extent of my sporting knowledge of the coast, except in the other sense of the word. Some years ago that fellow S.J. Perelman came through here. He had heard that there was a brothel on the coast called Eskimo Nell's, and he was determined to find it. I assured him there was no such place in Mombasa. Later he cadged a flight to Lamu, a town way up the coast, to continue his research. I doubt that he found Eskimo Nell there, either."

One highly evident influence on the coast is that of the jinis, those malicious spirits that accompany Arab culture wherever it goes. No sane African or Arab will remain in Fort Jesus after sundown. The people at Diani, a resort area south of Mombasa, warn Europeans not to venture too far offshore in their boats. "There are jinis out there," an old man told me in all seriousness. "Little men with hooked noses and big tumbos [bellies] who live in the mud. They will lure you into the mud. All the evil of the world comes from those mudbanks." He looked around conspiratorially. "They have rockets," he whispered.

Farther north, Winter bumped into one of his old game scouts from his days as a warden. The man was now stationed on the coast. "Must be nice down here," Bill suggested.

"Oh yes, very beautiful, Bwana," the man said. "But it's so damned expensive. All those goats and chickens."

"What do you mean?" Bill asked.

"Because of the jinis," the man said. "Every day my wife tells me something else they've done. So I have to make sacrifices." He shook his head wearily. "Too expensive."

The hulking presence of Fort Jesus at the entrance to the old dhow harbor in Mombasa is enough to convince even the most skeptical Westerner that some powerful evil influence is at work here. Now a national monument, the fort was begun by the Portuguese in 1593 and completed 30 years later. Its 50-foot-high walls, built of coral blocks cut from the reef, limed over and then daubed red with ocher, appear bloodstained in low light. And indeed they are. The fort has changed hands many times over the centuries, usually by treachery. From 1696 to '98 it underwent siege by Omani Arabs that only ended when plague got loose among the garrison. Portuguese and Arab graffiti overlay one another in the gloomy man-made grottoes within the fortress; at one corner is a deep pit into which prisoners were dropped—sometimes Arab, sometimes European. Blue and yellow agama lizards live in the mouths of old cast-iron cannons, flicking their forked tongues from shadow into harsh sunlight. Hooded crows circle raucously over the twisting, narrow streets of surrounding Mombasa, as if in search of carrion. One expects to see Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet ducking down a shaded alley.

If Fort Jesus represents the coast's glamorous—if bloodstained—past, the Baobab cement factory at Bamburi, just north of Mombasa, symbolizes the present. From the highway it would appear to be just a huge hole in the ground, wreathed in white dust and grumbling with the engines of giant dump trucks. But within the fringe of feathery-needled casuarina trees that masks the 60-acre factory from the beach hotels, a fascinating ecological experiment is taking place. The coral bedrock left after the cement miners have finished is being turned into a game park and fish farm.

Already a small mixed herd of eland and fringe-eared oryx has been established in the casuarina grove. A pond upon which swim Egyptian geese, white pelicans and fulvous tree ducks also sports a 6-year-old hippo named Sally, who guzzles milk from a gigantic baby bottle. "She's been fed on milk since she was a baby," says Tony Armitage, an assistant to Rene Haller, the Swiss agronomist who developed the park and farm. Armitage scooped a handful of rich brown loam from beneath the casuarinas. "This is the key to it all. The casuarina can root in just a few inches of coral." Then he pointed to an 8-inch-long millipede, black with orange legs, crawling through the casuarina duff. "That chappie turns the needles into humus at the rate of as much as an inch a year. Already in some places we have eight inches of topsoil, so we can grow other trees as well, like the conocarpus and the algarroba, which are salt-tolerant. The algarroba comes from South America. It produces a sweet, very edible pod. Our monkey population has considerably increased since we put the algarroba in. Goats, sheep, eland, even hippos thrive on it." We sampled a pod, which tastes like carob.

The black and orange millipede, omnipresent along the coast, is known locally by many names: bongololo, chungalulu, jongoo, the Tanganyika train, the Mombasa bus. For a while the casuarinas were threatened by an insect, the longicorn beetle, that was killing the trees. Haller solved the problem by introducing a squadron of eagle owls that quickly scoffed up the beetles. Similarly, an invasion of biting wasps, to which some people are intensely allergic, was countered by bringing in a variety of spider that weaves tough webs. "That took the sting out of the situation," says Armitage.

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