Mombasa and the Old Town

Crossed tusks, or is it an M for Mombasa?, mark the entrance to the modern part of Mombasa city. Made of steel (not ivory!) they were built in 1952 for newly crowned Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the city. Although the modern city is for the most part unremarkable, and could be mistaken for many cities in poorer parts of the world, Old Town Mombasa is a very different proposition. It is full of atmosphere and reminders of Mombasa’s past under the Portuguese, the British and as a transit port for the African slave trade.

From Kenya, Mombasa

We travelled by taxi (very reasonable for travel in Kenya – but negotiate hard over fares) to Fort Jesus on the edge of the Old Town. Local freelance guides will bombard you here with offers to show you the Old Town – apparently for free. Our guide said “pay me what I am worth” when asked! (we settled on 500 Kenyan Shillings – about £4 – with a bit of friendly haggling at the end of the walking tour)

Fort Jesus (above) on the edge of Old Town Mombasa, was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and was fought over by anyone or country wanting control of Mombasa port and thereby the slave trade.

The British used it as a prison until 1958 when it was converted to a museum. Wiki Travel has more on Fort Jesus.

Although it is only a stones throw away, the Old Town of Mombasa is a world apart from the “modern” city. A walk through the narrow streets takes you past the old post office, the police station and even The Slave House. Most of these buildings are still “original” (the Slave House is now a dusty supermarket) – some with ornate woodwork or quirky designs. Few have been restored for tourist appeal – but I am sure it is only a matter of time before these streets and buildings will succomb to the tourist-driven makeover that seems the inevitable destiny of heritage sites in major cities across the world. For now, Old Town Mombasa is still a working part of town with Kenyan folk going about their everyday lives.

Old Town Mombasa errs on the side of gritty, original and authentic rather than glossy, tourist must-see, but there is a modest recognition of its dark but fascinating past. I loved it and would have liked more time there to learn more and soak up the atmosphere.

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