The Jumba la Mtwana at Mtwapa

Our friends with a cottage at Vipingo beach did us a good turn this Christmas – they didn’t come to Kenya. So we kindly looked after their cottage for them.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation It’s in a lovely spot, on the north coast of Mombasa and well beyond the bustle of the road through Bombolulu, Bamburi, Shanzu and Mtwapa. It’s built on a coral cliff with a view straight out to sea and a path that winds steeply through the garden and down to the beach.

Tempting it was to laze the days away on the veranda with books and cold beers, with the laptop and a dongle, and with occasional forays to the sands and the rock pools when the tide was out. But there were also plenty of places to explore along that north coast road.

One place you might not know about is Jumba la Mtwana – the mysterious ruin of a prosperous fourteenth or fifteenth century Swahili community. The turn-off to it is two kilometres beyond the Mtwapa Creek bridge and then three kilometres down a dusty track. Not as impressive as Gedi, further down the road and near Malindi, but Jumba la Mtwana is right on the beach, and it has a very special air. The grey coral stones match the grey, gnarled barks of the baobabs that would have outlived them had some archaeologists not come to their rescue.

The name, Jumba la Mtwana, means ‘the large house of the slave’. The compound stretches for 300 metres along the shore. It must have been a place of substance, because four mosques, a tomb with a fascinating inscription, and four houses have survived in a condition that is quite recognizable. My guidebook gives them names, such as House of Cylinders, House of Kitchen, House of Many Doors – and Mosque by the Sea.

The Koranic inscription is carved on a coral panel by the tomb. It is a very sombre text:

‘Every soul shall taste death. You will simply be paid your wages in full on the Day of Resurrection. He who is removed from the fire and made to enter heaven, it is he who has won the victory. The earthly life is only delusion.’

You could say that the sight of the ruined buildings dramatically reinforces that final message!

It seems, as well as being mindful of the spirit world, the inhabitants of this community also kept themselves bodily clean – there are cisterns and water jars everywhere. They also used stone-lined, long-drop latrines.

The renovation of the site was done through a project of the National Museums of Kenya, supported by the Swedish aid agency, SIDA. In the education centre there is an exhibition on ‘Urban Origins on the East African Coast’ – illustrations and commentary on the history of Swahili settlements, their lifestyles and economies. It also focuses on the controversial topic of Swahili identity.

But it seems that the makers of the exhibition were so concerned about political correctness that they risked historical blandness. There is little recognition of the blending of cultures through settlement and trade that made the Swahili. There is no reference to the Arabs. There is no mention of slavery – despite the name of the site.

But for us it was a holiday and not a time to get involved in difficult debates on history and culture. So we drove back along the track and across the road to that splendid floating restaurant on Mtwapa Creek – the Moorings. We sat out in the dhow that was tied alongside, and we indulged ourselves with a plate of fresh oysters and with a glass of chilled white wine. It didn’t seem like a delusion.