Mombasa: city of salt and of spice, of dreams and of battles, of poetry, of seafaring stories and of wave upon wave of traders from faraway lands. 'It does not reveal the great secret it holds,' wrote the classical Swahili poet Muyaka about his hometown. 'Even those who are well-informed do not comprehend it.'
Indeed, the city dubbed Kisiwa Cha Mvita – the Island of War – in Swahili has many faces. It's muttered chants echoing over the flagstones of a Jain temple, the ecstatic passion of the call to prayer, the teal break of a vanishing wave and the sight of a Zanzibar-bound dhow slipping over the horizon. It's row upon row of purveyors of herbal medicine. It's cows dozing outside hair-braiding salons.It's birds swooping low over great piles of smoking trash, and buildings so scorched by the sun their burnt skin has peeled away, just like ours.
Mombasa has more in common with Dakar or Dar es Salaam than Nairobi – its blend of India, Arabia and Africa can be intoxicating. But it's also grimy and sleazy, with deep ethnic tensions and security concerns that threaten to boil over. But what would you expect from East Africa’s largest port? Cities by the docks always attract mad characters, and Mombasa’s come from all over the world.
Perhaps it’s best to let the Swahili people themselves describe their city in their native tongue with an old line of poetry and proverb: 'Kongowea nda mvumo, maji maangavu. Male!' (‘Mombasa is famous, but its waters are dangerously deep. Beware!’).