There are two sites in Mombasa that undoubtedly receive hundreds of thousands of local and international tourists every year.
Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach and Mama Ngina Waterfront Park, which coincidentally are named after the First President and his wife respectively, are now the talk of the town in the coastal city of Mombasa.
The national government has allocated a whopping Sh660 million to regenerate the two sites to international standards and attract more tourists to the region.
Mama Ngina Waterfront Park, which has benefited from the big chunk of Sh460 million, holds the rich history of Mombasa town that dates back to the 15th century.
Among the features the project aims to establish are leisure walks, souvenir shopping, entertainment, sporting and other leisure activities, foods and beverages, and relaxation areas.
It will also include Little Theatre, a cultural heritage centre, to provide a platform for exhibition of the coast’s diverse cultural practices and foster heritage.
While many people know more about Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach because of the luxury hotels nearby, Mama Ngina has remained a sleeping giant.
The 26-acre land is only famed for being a place where tourists, both local and international, can relax and watch the world-class ships passing by as they arrive and leave the port of Mombasa.
Little historical information is available for this area that lies magnificently facing the Likoni crossing channel and has Kenya’s oldest golf course, the Mombasa Golf Club.
Last month (January 7), President Uhuru Kenyatta led a high-profile delegation in commissioning the Sh460 million regeneration of the Mama Ngina Waterfront Park.
Present were Opposition leader Raila Odinga, Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho, several Cabinet Secretaries and Mombasa leaders.
It was during this event that Joho spilled the beans that part of the park has been grabbed, urging the President to intervene.
“Mr President, we still have a challenge with this area. Some two parcels of land have been grabbed from the area,” Joho said.
Tourism CS Najib Balala said he was forced to unceremoniously quit being a mayor of the defunct Mombasa Council some 20 years ago because of the grabbing of Mama Ngina Park.
“I had to leave office because I could not stand seeing public land being taken away,” he said.
The CS said Mama Ngina holds the rich history of Mombasa and should thus be preserved in its entirety.
“This area belongs to the native Wakilindini. The Likoni channel, which is also known as the Kilindini channel, got its name from the native Wakilindini,” Balala said.
The National Museums of Kenya, who are the custodian of Kenya’s archeological and heritage sites, gazetted the Mama Ngina Waterfront Park in 2005 to preserve it.
BATTLE OF MOMBASA
According to information at the NMK, Mama Ngina Watefront Park is as old as Fort Jesus. The fight for Mombasa Island (Mvita) is believed to have taken place on this site, before the natives (Wakilindini) moved northwards to Old Town and Majengo area.
The battle of Mombasa was between the Portuguese and the natives, who were opposing this foreign invasion by the white people.
The Arabs had already set base in the coastal town of Mombasa by then and were ruling the island. They led the locals against the Portuguese invasion.
The Portuguese were against the slave trade that was being done by the Arabs then.
“It is believed that the Wakilindiini might have been driven out by the Portuguese in the 15th century, as supported by the presence of St Joseph Fortress, a nameless fortress, a Portuguese Redoubt at the Mama Ngina site,” reads part of report from NMK.
Hundreds of thousands of the Swahili natives (Wakilindini) lost their lives on these grounds of Mama Ngina, when they were bombarded by the Portuguese from their canons in the ships.
Some Swahili natives still call Mama Ngina site Mizimule (A place of spirits/ghosts) because of the lives lost on that site and the presence of the many baobab trees.
NLC chair Dr Muhammad Swazuri says Mama Ngina Waterfront Park is a classic example of forgotten history.
On the furthest end of Mama Ngina Waterfront Park, the area behind the Coast Police Headquarters, lies the untold story of Mombasa Island, Swazuri explains.
He says the ruins of a church, St Johns ACK, believed to be the first one in Mombasa built by the Portuguese, are still standing on a cliff at Mama Ngina Waterfront Park behind the police headquarters.
Next to these ruins, Swazuri explains, a fortress named St Joseph and another unnamed Portuguese redoubt still stand after four centuries.
“We have underground tunnels and caves on this cliff at Mama Ngina that were first used by Arabs during the slave period as holding grounds before the slaves were sold abroad,” Swazuri says.
Later on, after the Portuguese invasion, these tunnels were turned to underground bunkers, whereby the Portuguese used to hide and stage attacks on the Arabs and natives.
The tunnels are now being used as shrines and some as a hiding place for criminals.
This old St Joseph Fort at Mama Ngina was later abandoned before the Portuguese set a new base near the Old Town. This is after they built Fort Jesus between 1593 and 1596 to the designs of Giovanni Battista Cairati to protect the old port of Mombasa.
Fort Jesus is one of the most outstanding and well-preserved examples of 16th century Portuguese military fortification.
Back to Mama Ngina Waterfront Park. On its stretch also lies the Mombasa Golf Club, which was built in 1911, when the British had invaded Mombasa and set a protectorate.
Just a short distance from Mombasa Golf Club is the Mombasa State House, which was built in 1879 as the Government House, some eight years before the construction of Nairobi State House in 1907.
Around this area also stands the Light House, which was used for ship navigation by the Portuguese, Mbaraki Pillar behind Nakumatt Likoni, and baobab trees believed to be over 400 years old.
SCRAMBLE FOR LAND
In the 1970s, Swazuri says, the Kenyan government issued a directive to preserve the Mama Ngina Waterfront Park.
However, between 1985 and 2012, there was a scramble to divide the 26-acre land to tycoons keen to put up hotels and other businesses.
According to the NLC, some 13 private companies and individuals subdivided 20 of the 26 acres among themselves.
“We now have only six acres left for the public. However, the good thing is that this subdivision of Mama Ngina Park is only on paper. A big chunk of the land is still open to the public. Only 2.3 acres have been fenced,” Swazuri says.
He says the two fenced plots, identified as Plot 408 and Plot 1018, occupy 2.3 acres, measuring 1.5 acres and 0.8 acres.
Next to Plot 1018 is where the ruins of St Johns ACK church, St Joseph Fortress, a redoubt and a navigation pillar are still standing to date.
“We are giving notice to the title holders of the 13 parcels of land to give us the ownership documents to learn how they acquired the land. They should also prepare to leave this land within 90 days,” Swazuri directed.
The walls around Plot 408 and 1018 have already been demolished by the Mombasa government following the directive.
Mombasa Lands executive Edward Nyale, who led the operation to demolish the perimeter walls around the two plots, says they have to make sure public land is preserved.
“This area is very rich in history of Mombasa, which has remained untold,” he says.
“If we allow people to grab it, many years to come we shall not have anything to tell our children. Therefore, the Mombasa government would like to preserve this area for generations to come.”
The President’s Sh460 million regeneration project of Mama Ngina Watefront Park will now go on unopposed, Swazuri says.
He says the entire area is public land and any person who claims ownership got the papers in corrupt ways.
Swazuri promised to publish 13 names of the companies and individuals who were allocated land at Mama Ngina.