Fun in Mombasa

Despite safety issues in the city, I’ve still managed to enjoy myself while here, mostly in the company of my homestay brothers, who kindly insist on going with me anytime I go out, which is absolutely fine by me, both for safety reasons, and because they’re just fun to be around.

Last Friday, the morning of the recent shooting, I went to the Mombasa archaeology center with Mchula, who works there.

The office floor where Mchula works

The office floor where Mchula works

They’ve just built a brand new building that overlooks Fort Jesus and some of the prettier parts of Old Town.

The view from Mchula's office

The view from Mchula’s office

He then took me to their library, which while small actually houses a useful collection of books, many of which were relevant to my interests. So I bought a one-month pass (not knowing then that I wouldn’t be staying in Mombasa) so I can relax and work there during the day. It’s quiet and cool, so a nice place to work, and something to just get me out of the house.

Mchula at the archaeology center

Mchula at the archaeology center

After the library, Mchula toured me around the Swahili Cultural Center. It’s really an amazing organization they’ve got going. They have programs that teach men how to do the traditional types of Swahili woodworking, especially the beds and intricately-carved doors they’re known for, and women how to sew kofias in the traditional designs. They also have Swahili language classes and a variety of other cultural events at different times.

The Swahili Cultural Center

The Swahili Cultural Center

It’s actually a model that Kennedy would like to emulate with Ekegusii – funding permitting, he’d like to start a cultural center like this, where youth could come to learn all the traditional ways of doing things. Many of the people who participate in the training at the cultural center go on to sell the crafts they make, and it becomes a business for them. It would be wonderful to see something similar happen for the Abagusii.

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

After leaving Mchula at his office, I strolled around the garden behind Fort Jesus for a bit, and ran into a butterfly garden of all things.

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Apparently it’s only been open about two months. The garden was really nicely done, and the variety of butterflies they have in this region is really pretty astounding.

Afterwards I slipped down the street to the office for the School for International Training, where my study abroad program was based in 2006-2007. The program coordinators, Athman Lali Omar and Ali Shariff, were both there and thrilled to see me, giving me all sorts of helpful tips on things I might do in Mombasa and Kisii, and some contacts I might look into. I also browsed through all the independent study projects that students have filed over the years, going back to 1990.

All of the old independent study projects

All of the old independent study projects

Only mine and one other person’s projects were related to linguistics, so there wasn’t as much there as I had hoped (the other project was studying Kenyan sign language though, which was neat to read).

My paper's still there!

My paper’s still there!

The school library was a great boon however, smaller in size than the archaeology library, but far better in quality of materials. I’ll need to make another trip there before I leave Mombasa. The one set of materials I’d really like to see though, if time permits before I leave Kenya, are the dissertations in the linguistics department at the University of Nairobi. There are likely to be several very useful things on Ekegusii there.

The next day, a fun cultural exchange happened. Kennedy, wanting to meet my homestay family and talk with them about my safety and plans for Kisii, was invited over to dinner at my family’s house. Now, Kennedy is Christian and from upcountry, while my homestay family is Muslim and from the coast – two very different cultures. Kennedy, though, was a great sport, treating the whole affair much like he treated going to America, where he knows the culture is different, and so open to trying new things. It wound up being great fun. While my family typically eats at the kitchen table, for large gatherings or for special guests they put down mats on the floor in the living room and all sit around that instead (I’m convinced the primary purpose for this is to make room for the dozens of different plates they put out, which would have never fit on the table).

The spread that my homestay family made for Kennedy

The spread that my homestay family made for Kennedy

Kennedy got a complete kick out of it, and noted that in the 30 years he’s lived in Mombasa, he had never eaten sitting on the floor like that.

Kennedy trys out eating while sitting on the floor for the first time

Kennedy trys out eating while sitting on the floor for the first time

I found out later that these weren’t the typical foods he’d eat at dinner either. Some of it was similar enough, mainly the rice dishes and beans, but otherwise it shared little resemblance with the kinds of dishes he’s been treating me to at his house this past week. I find it remarkable how different the coastal vs. inland cultures are here in East Africa. Even they treat each other as foreign cultures, I think largely due to the religious differences, and it tends to cause some political tensions between the two regions as well. I was slightly worried about this at dinner, but it turns out I had nothing to fear. Rukiya and Mchula were gracious hosts, and Kennedy had a fun time trying new dishes, and chatted happily with them for a long time. They discovered that Rukiya even works with his cousin! (Though what gets called a cousin here is pretty broadly interpreted.)

Since the shooting, I’ve still made the occasional outing, again accompanied with my homestay brothers, but only to limited places, general right near the house and away from tourist areas. After dinner on Sunday, Saidi and I went out for cocounts, which I hated last time I was here, but now I absolutely love. The coconut actually goes through a series of stages, all of which have Swahili names (and probably Ekegusii names too – I intend to find out!), but it’s the very first one, when they’re called dafu (pl. madafu), that they’re the best to eat and drink. For about a dollar, one of the street vendors will grab a fresh coconut, use a small machete (panga) to chop off the outer layers, and then in one neat whack, open up the top of the coconut just enough for drinking. You’re handed the coconut with the straw in it, and when you’re done drinking the coconut milk, you hand it back, and they’ll scrape down the inside of it to get all the delicious coconut meat from the inside. They take one of the outer pieces of the coconut and quickly carve it into a spoon so you can scoop up all the coconut meat inside. All the while you get to sit on the sidewalk and chat with people and generally enjoy yourself.

The following day was officially Eid, the end of the month of fasting for Ramadhan, so my entire family was out visiting neighbors throughout the day, eating small bits of food at each place as they went.

The house all decorated for Eid

The house all decorated for Eid

This meant that nobody was preparing dinner at home, and so it was one of the very rare days when the children were expected to fend for themselves. So for dinner Saidi and I went out to a little outdoor place with communal seating called Mubin’s Cafe. Outside was a big grill, where they were serving up meat kabobs, chicken tikka, and tandoori bread.

The outdoor grill at Mubin's

The outdoor grill at Mubin’s

The service was exceptionally terrible (Saidi was thoroughly irritated with the waiter by the time we left), but the food exceptionally good.

Saidi and I's meal at Mubin's

Saidi and I’s meal at Mubin’s

The following night, too, Saidi, Fadhil, Arafat and I all went out for pizza, since this is something Saidi had always wanted to do (I voted for one of the local Swahili cafes, but the brothers won out). Again, terrible service (two hour wait for three pizzas!!), but surprisingly good pizza.

Grabbing pizza at the Pizza Inn

Grabbing pizza at the Pizza Inn

Finally, last night we went out to grab a few chocolate bars – a rare treat – to bring back for the family and everybody enjoyed trying all the different flavors (no dark chocolate, sadly).

So while things haven’t been as exciting around town and I’ve mostly stayed holed up at Rukiya’s, we’ve still managed to have a little bit of fun without wandering far afield. The real excitement has been on the research end of things, working with Kennedy, but more about that in my next post.

Jamaa yangu ya Kenya: My Kenya family

Rukiya
Rukiya is my homestay mother, and absolutely the sweetest woman. She’s always ready with a laugh and a smile, and treats me like one of her own children, right down to worrying about me incessantly :) She works at Standard Chartered bank here in town, and then comes home and works to keep the household running as well, with the assistance of the house help. I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for her, especially raising a houseful of rowdy boys, working often very late and then coming home to work here in the house, but always with joy and a smile.

Rukiya and Me

Mchula
Mchula is my homestay father, an archaeologist who works at the museum in Mombasa. I can see why he and Rukiya married, because he too is quick with a laugh, and when the two of them get together there’s always lots of fun and laughing to be had. This is actually the second marriage for both Rukiya and Mchula, a bit unusual among coastal Swahilis. In this case, it just means that the house is always filled with one or the other of their children, and tons of guests.

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Abdulatif (Tifu)
Tifu is the oldest of the children I’ve met, is Mchula’s son, and lives outside Mombasa with his wife. When I was last here, Tifu was working in Dubai, and came home for a two-week visit to see his family. I haven’t gotten to see him much overall, but from the first time I met him he’s always been incredibly welcoming and made me feel like a brother.

Aboubakar (Abou)
Abou was here the entire time I was back in 2006-2007, a wiry kid who was into rap music and Rastafarianism, and is a good brother to his younger siblings, helping Rukiya keep them in line. He is Mchula’s son as well. Not long after I left, Abou joined his brother Tifu in Dubai, where the pair of them worked as lifeguards in one of the tourist resorts. Eventually Tifu married and returned home to Kenya (possibly in the reverse order), while Abou stayed on. Now, Abou actually lives in Miami, working on a cruise ship that harbors there. With any luck maybe Jacob and I will get to make a trip down to see him at some point.

Fadhil
Rukiya’s son, Fadhil was a bit of troublemaker when I was here last, but seems to have made a complete turnaround, and now acts as the responsible older brother to Saidi. Since I was last here, he got a technical degree in electrical engineering from a college here in Mombasa, and now works full time in the city while living here at Rukiya’s. I have Fadhil to thank for the decent-quality wifi here in the house :)

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Ilham
Rukiya’s daughter, I had a chance to meet her for a few weeks back in 2007, when she returned home on vacation from school at Kampala University. I always really enjoyed talking to Ilham; she’s one of those people who opens up easily and takes a genuine interest in you. Since I last saw her she’s gotten married and had two healthy children. She’s now living in Nairobi with her husband, and to hear Saidi tell it, living quite the cosmopolitan lifestyle, “going around speaking English everywhere she goes”.

Saidi
My bro, my partner in crime, my shadow. Saidi is the youngest in the family – only 13 when I was last here, but now 20 – and by far the most rambunctious of the bunch. As one visitor put it earlier today, “he likes to tell tall tales”. For a good portion of his childhood he grew up with American students around the house, since Rukiya regularly hosts students from the School for International Training, so Saidi’s English is great, and he knows all our wierd American habits better than the others in the family. I’ve learned a ton from him, because we’re always talking about differences between American and Swahili culture, so he’s always filling me in on some little cultural detail or another I didn’t know about. He’ll frequently tag along when I go out, so he’s my adventuring buddy while I’m here, and I’ll treat him to little things here and there that he doesn’t often have a chance to try otherwise. His first trip to the movie theater was with me, for example; and last night he used me as an excuse to order pizza at this place he’d always wanted to (and who am I to turn down pizza?). Saidi is in school in Dar es Salaam (capital of Tanzania, about 6 hours drive south of here if it were an interstate in the U.S., but about 9 hours bus drive here), getting a 3-year technical degree in marine engineering (so getting to work on ship engines and ship design), and is currently home on summer vacation until the end of September.

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Arafat
A friend of Saidi’s from Dar, who came to stay with the family over the break. He reminds me of Tifu in that he was instantly very welcoming to me, and he also gets a kick out of me speaking Swahili (which actually means I learn a lot of Swahili from him). He’s pretty quiet but I always enjoy his company.

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Bakari
The hired house help, who (I think) lives upstairs in the room next to Saidi’s. I say “I think”, because Arafat is also staying up there, so there are three people and two beds. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bakari slept on the floor while Arafat was here. He generally keeps out of sight and doesn’t let himself be seen by guests, but I’m one of the exceptions to that rule since I’m also staying here and help out with the chores like the other members of the family. He’s probably the most integral person to the household, since he does the majority of the work and the cooking. He’s kind of Rukiya’s right-hand man, and they’re often in the kitchen together coordinating meals and cooking. I’m pretty sure Rukiya taught him how to make all the various foods she cooks, so that he prepares most of the meals. He’s very kind to me, and I think he appreciates the fact that I take the time to talk to him in Swahili and say thank you for things. When I was still getting adjusted to the time zone, he’d always make sure I had milk tea and hard-boiled eggs waiting outside my door if I slept though breakfast.

Safety Issues in Mombasa

Not long before I arrived in Kenya a series of attacks started along the coast, thought to be linked to Al Shabab, a Somali terrorist organization taking attempting to take revenge on Kenya for invading Somalia. Or at least they’ve been taking credit for the attacks. In Lamu, a small, traditional Swahili town on the north Kenya coast near the Somali border, there was an attack in early July and one late in the month as well, the day before I arrived in Kenya. (You can read more on the Wikipedia page here.) In general, the area in northeast Kenya has been unstable for a while now, but the problems pretty much stayed in that region. Even so, tourism has been gradually dropping in Kenya, and indeed, the first week I was walking around Mombasa Old Town, it was eerily quiet. Usually there are busfulls of tourists pulling up at Fort Jesus, and white people walking around town. Yet since I’ve been here, I’ve seen maybe a grand total of 5 other white people. It’s pretty unnerving.

The day before I arrived in Mombasa, there was another shooting on the outskirts of the city, killing 7 people. Again, this wasn’t much of a concern for me, because there’s a big difference between the Mombasa outskirts, which are much poorer and more likely to see violence, and Mombasa Old Town, which is predominantly Muslim, home to lots of well-protected banks with armed guards, and generally kept nice for tourists. The situation changed again last week though, when suddenly there was news of a female German tourist being shot right in Old Town nearby. Suddenly I was getting calls from every person I knew in town to make sure it wasn’t me (at the time the only thing people knew about the incident was that some white person in Old Town had been shot). It was especially unnerving because I had been out around town just that morning (having a great time, actually, but that’ll be another post). I was at home taking an afternoon nap when it happened though, so didn’t hear about it til the phone calls started coming in as people heard about it in the minutes following the event.

That evening, I talked to Kennedy and my homestay parents, and we all agreed on a number of precautions that I should start taking, just to be extra cautious. The main one is that I’ll pretty much just stay hunkered down here at home for the rest of my time here – no going out to explore the city, or for morning runs, etc. And if I did need to go anywhere, I’d take a taxi or tuktuk (a rickshaw, one of these things below). Kennedy would come pick me up and drop me off for our language work, or just work with me here at the house. All pretty disappointing, but certainly precautions I’m more than willing to take.

This is a tuktuk, named for the noise it makes as it goes along: tuktuktuktuktuktuk. The things are super noisy and bouncy, but they get the job done for cheap.

This is a tuktuk, named for the noise it makes as it goes along: tuktuktuktuktuktuk. The things are super noisy and bouncy, but they get the job done for cheap.

The next night, we also planned for Kennedy to come over for dinner and meet my homestay family (which was also a great experience – more later), not only so that everybody could get to know each other, but also so we could all decide next steps for me. After some discussion, we decided on new plan, and one which I’m actually extremely happy about, because it will be a great boon to my research.

On Friday, Kennedy has asked me to take part in a reception that is being thrown for him to report about his visit to the States and all he accomplished with the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project. So I’ve been helping him put together slides and video clips from the dictionary launch at CoLang in Arlington, Texas, and will be talking briefly about my work here and how I’ll be supporting the Encyclopedia Project. The next day, I’ll hop on a bus with Gladys Machogu, Kennedy’s coauthor on the dictionary, to Kisii district in southwestern Kenya. Kennedy owns a house there, and several of his family are staying there right now as well. It’ll be completely safe, and I’ll be able to explore town and go for runs, etc. People tell me it’s a nice, quiet town. And, most importantly, prey to none of the violence that has plagued Kenya these past handful of years. In fact, residents from that entire region of Kenya fled to Kisii to avoid violence during the 2007-2008 elections. Another colleague of mine, Michael Diercks (Pomona University) is there now doing research as well, so I’m hoping to meet up with him while I’m there.

The best part of all this (other than avoiding potential future attacks in Mombasa) is that I’ll now be surrounded by Ekegusii speakers, both in the housing compound where I’ll be staying and the town generally. Kisii is the region where Ekegusii speakers traditional hail from. So I’m incredibly excited for the research opportunities I’ll have there. Already Kennedy has told me that he’s trying to plan a day, maybe two, in which members of the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project and their families go through the whole process of harvesting, preparing, cooking, and eating (best part!) millet, using all the traditional methods for these things. In addition, there is apparently going to be a huge literature and poetry event, with elders reciting poetry in Ekegusii. So naturally I’m ecstatic for the opportunity. Though Kennedy and I have already gotten some great work done here in Mombasa with just the two of us, it’s exciting to think what else I’ll be able to do surrounded by speakers in Kisii.

Kennedy’s Story

Kennedy Bosire was born in Kisii district in a village called Gesooko /ɣɛsɔɔkɔ/ in 1962. He grew up in a rural area living in a traditional Ekegusii grass house, the 7th child in a family of 9, and helped his father herd cattle, sheep, and goats. In 1971 he entered primary school, where they were allowed to use Ekegusii for the first 3 years of school, but afterwards all schooling was in English or Swahili. After finishing school and working for a few years, Kennedy moved to Mombasa in 1984 to attend the Polytechnic University in Kenya, and graduated in 1995 before taking a position as at the Kenyan Port Authority here in Mombasa, where he continues to work today. Kennedy is married to an Omogusii woman and has five children.

In 2001, when his children where reaching adolescence, Kennedy decided to write down all the traditional Ekegusii proverbs he had been told by his father when he was young, so that he could pass them on to his kids, so they would retain some of the Ekegusii culture that was part of their heritage. After about a year of working on it, he began to realize there was a bigger need for this kind of work than just recording proverbs: the Ekegusii language didn’t even have a dictionary, and so he set out to write one. His brother Mokaya, who is a Swahili instructor and linguist at the University of Oregon, knowing what a monumental task writing a dictionary is, at first discouraged Kennedy from doing it. But Kennedy couldn’t be deterred, and so he began writing.

Unfortunately, because Kennedy himself had been barred from speaking Ekegusii for most of school, and had little opportunity to use it in Mombasa, he started to realize that his Ekegusii wasn’t entirely up to task. Moreover, there was simply no way he could possibly remember every word in the language himself. He assembled a team of Abagusii in Mombasa who were interested in helping with the project, and arranged for them to take a trip west to Kisii district, where they would spend a week talking to elders, recording words and stories. But when the day came for them to leave for the trip, only 1 of the original 10 people showed up: Gladys Machogu.

Together, Gladys and Kennedy spent the week in Kisii recording, with Kennedy doing the interviewing and holding the camera, and Gladys transcribing and taking notes. At first the elders were a little dismayed, and Kennedy and Gladys felt a bit like imposters: their Ekegusii wasn’t nearly as good as that of the elders. Kennedy explained that, even though their Ekegusii wasn’t as good as it could be, they were here to learn it better and to take a passionate interest in the language, to be able to pass it on to future generations. That was the whole point: for the elders to pass on what they had learned, so the younger generations could learn the language rather than just speaking it partly. After that the elders were incredibly pleased to have them there, and became excited about the project.

One week wasn’t enough to write a dictionary, though, so Kennedy cooked up a brilliant idea: He told the elders that the task now fell to them to help collect words for the dictionary. For each word they sent him, Kennedy would pay them a certain amount. They would send the word, its definition, and some examples if they could. Each person could only send a word once, so they should keep their own records of the words they had collected, but different people could send the same word. Kennedy actively encouraged these kinds of duplicates in fact, because he could check them against each other and try to capture all the senses of the word.

Soon words started pouring in. Thousands and thousands of them, all kept in a giant Excel spreadsheet. Moreover, as he thought more about the audience of the dictionary, he realized that it wasn’t for the elders he was writing it, but rather the youth. The dictionary needed to be as detailed as possible, and include as much cultural information as possible, to be useful to them. Knowing that this was a bigger project than any one or two people could handle alone, it was then that Kennedy and Gladys started the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project, a nonprofit with the goal of creating the first Ekegusii Encyclopedia, an anthropological treasure trove that anybody could turn to in order to learn more about Ekegusii culture, language, and ways of life.

2008 rolled around, and found Kennedy and Gladys still hard at work on their dictionary, when one day Kennedy saw an announcement online, for something called the Institute on Field Linguistics, or InField. This was a workshop to bring linguists and community members together to work together towards documenting and revitalizing their languages, and was to be held at – you guessed it – the University of California, Santa Barbara for its inaugural year. Its organizer was Carol Genetti, faculty member at the linguistics department there and now one of my advisors. Kennedy got in touch with Carol and told her about the dictionary project, asking if they could attend the institute. Carol was able to do one better: she managed to bring Kennedy and Gladys to Santa Barbara as instructors in a field methods class on Ekegusii. For four weeks, Kennedy and Gladys worked tirelessly with a group of 10 students as they asked them all sorts of questions about their language to learn how to do linguistic elicitation and analysis. And that was just during the day. In the evenings, they would return to their rooms and continue working on their dictionary, wanting to incorporate as much as they could from what they learned at InField before they left. One day during the workshop, Albert Bickford, a linguist with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), who had watched a presentation by Kennedy and Gladys about their work, approached them to tell them about some dictionary software (Lexique Pro) that might make their work easier. They were of course thrilled to hear about this, and within about 4 hours, Albert had helped them convert their entire Excel dictionary into a Toolbox file, and later a Lexique Pro file. Kennedy and Gladys were overjoyed, and spent the next several weeks at InField editing entries, adding new ones, and even recording audio to accompany each one of the files – 13,600 entries in all!

By the time the third InField (now CoLang, or the Collaborative Institute on Language Documentation) rolled around in 2012, the dictionary was almost complete, and Kennedy and Gladys were now working with Carlos Nash, one of the students from the original field methods class in 2008, to put the final formatting touches on their dictionary. Upon returning to Kenya, they got in touch with a publisher in India who could print it, and took out a bank loan to cover the costs of printing. Then, because the book was so big (!), the publisher wanted to print it in two separate volumes. This was unacceptable, so Kennedy had to fly all the way to India for a week to sort things out. In the end, the publisher conceded, and this is the beautiful result: the first-ever dictionary of Ekegusii.

The Ekegusii dictionary, coauthored by Kennedy Bosire and Gladys Machogu

The Ekegusii dictionary, coauthored by Kennedy Bosire and Gladys Machogu

What’s next? Carlos Nash began working with the Ekegusii team in 2008 to help them describe the tonal system of the language. Ekegusii has high tones and low tones, and a number of processes where tones can move around or change depending on context, but nobody had ever been able to describe all these processes fully before. So Carlos bravely tackled this problem, and produced his 2011 dissertation, Tone in Ekegusii: A description of nominal and verbal tonology as a result. Now a professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, Carlos continues to work with Kennedy and Gladys towards a second edition of the dictionary, which will include the tone marking.

As for me, I’m here in Kenya to begin helping with the next step of the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project. While I’m here, I’ll be recording hopefully lots of materials on traditional Ekegusii culture and language. Already Kennedy has recorded and given me 20 different folktales in language, all of which are beautiful to listen to. He’s also setting up an entire day’s worth of activities surrounding the harvesting, cooking, and eating of millet in the traditional ways, so that I can record as much as possible. Then we’ll record people talking about the videos, explaining what’s happening in each part. I also hope to record several conversations, some other stories, and maybe even some songs, but we’ll just see what’s doable and what’s not. All of these materials will then serve three different purposes: First, they’ll be used to create all sorts of teaching materials for Abagusii youth to learn about their cultural heritage. We can create videos in Ekegusii, animated stories, short documentaries, or audio recordings for people to practice the language with. Second, Carlos is now beginning to write a descriptive grammar of the language, and so all this data will contribute towards his work there. And finally, my own dissertation and perhaps my master’s thesis will incorporate this data as well. It’s really rewarding to be working on a project that has the potential to produce so many benefits to so many different people.

Ekegusii Words

Ekegusii [ékeɣusií] 1) proper n. (culture) the beliefs, way of life, art, tribal lore, accumulated experience and customs that are shared and accepted by Abagusii and have existed for a very long time. 2) proper n. (language) the language spoken by the Abagusii of Kenya. 3) adj. like, pertaining to the Abagusii.

Omogusii [ómoɣusií] proper n. – a Gusii person of the Bantu tribe living in the southwestern part of Kenya.

Abagusii [áβaɣusií] proper n. (pl. of Omogusii) – the Gusii people

Mombasa Raha

Coastal Kenyans have a saying: Mombasa raha, Lamu tamu, which means something like ‘blissful Mombasa, sweet Lamu‘, and refers to the quiet, happy, peaceful, laid back nature of both towns and the coast in general. I don’t know about quiet so much, but certainly my first few days in Mombasa were wonderfully refreshing.

My arrival in Mombasa and my homestay family’s house was everything I hoped it would be. My mother here was thrilled to see me, and my younger brother, who was only 13 when I was here before, is now 20 years old! Still the same fun, mischevious kid I remember though. I’ll write some more about my homestay family in my next post.

My bro Saidi, lookin' poa (cool)

My bro Saidi, lookin’ poa (cool)

The view from the roof deck on Rukiya's house

The view from the roof deck on Rukiya’s house

It just so happens I arrived in the middle of Ramadhan, a holy month of fasting in Islam. This means that my family, who are Muslim, fast from sunup until sundown, even abstaining from water. They still make sure I have food if I want it – the house help usually leaves a couple eggs and a mug of chai (spiced masala tea) on the table for me for breakfast – but mostly I just wait for the evening meal with them (though I’m chugging plenty of water throughout the day). Right as the sun goes down, the adhan, or call to prayer, begins to play over the loudspeakers of every mosque in the city. It is recited by a muezzin, whose task is specifically to recite the adhan, and who is chosen for his ability to recite the adhan as melodiously and beautifully as possible. White the adhan isn’t a song, it has a gorgeous melody to it. Listening to the adhan resonate through the whole of the city, almost like it’s floating over the rooftops, is one of my favorite parts of being on the Swahili coast. It plays five times a day (dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night).

While the adhan comes every day, during Ramadhan the evening call is special, because it marks the moment when Muslims can break their fast for the day. As soon as my various brothers hear the call, they go rushing to the kitchen for iftar, which is a small appetizer that they can satiate their hunger with before heading to the mosque to pray. Iftar is a generally happy affair (who wouldn’t be hungry after finally getting a chance to eat!), and meant to be a time of social gathering, albeit a brief one. The traditional food to break the fast with is dates, and my mother prepares them special just for Ramadhan. After praying at the mosque, the whole family returns for the evening meal, which during Ramadhan consists of all kinds of food.

My first meal in Mombasa

My first meal in Mombasa

Samosas, filled with either meat or veggies

Samosas, filled with either meat or veggies

If you’re a foody, then the Swahili coast during Ramadhan is the place to be. People prepare all sorts of sweets or special dishes that are typically only made for special occasions.

Bajias

Bajias

Tambi, or 'Swahili spaghetti'. Sweet-tasting sticky vermicelli with raisins.

Tambi, or ‘Swahili spaghetti’. Sweet-tasting sticky vermicelli with raisins.

My mother happens to be one of the best Swahili cooks in the city too (no joke – all the women in her family are known for it; her sister even runs a Swahili food place in Nairobi), so I lucked out :)

Mahamri, basically triangular donuts without glaze or sugar coating

Mahamri, basically triangular donuts without glaze or sugar coating

Charity is also an important part of Ramadhan, so on Wednesday after dinner I also went with my brother and another guest of the family to deliver gifts, known as amana, to different people around the city. Even when it isn’t Ramadhan, my family typically donates any leftover food from their meals to the poor people living in the area. Whether or not there are any leftovers is a toss-up though, since on any given day any number of guests may show up for dinner unnannounced. The table is always full with people, food, and good conversation. I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming home.

Panorama of the kitchen

Panorama of the kitchen

Because the evening meal alone isn’t really enough to go on, there’s typically a second meal, called suhoor, that happens in the early pre-dawn hours before fasting begins. The help sets out a small meal on the table before bed, and around 3am the family wakes up and rather blearily enjoys a late-night meal together. Since my sleep schedule is already ridiculously out of whack, I’ve just been staying up and joining them and sleeping afterwards. Good thing too, since during Ramadhan it stays incredibly noisy at night until then anyway (my mother says it’s all those Somalis living around us). Someone – maybe a distant mosque; I’m not sure – plays the adhan or perhaps some other recitation loud enough to hear it from blocks away until around 3am too. With all that, plus the heat and humidity (80 degrees and 70% humidity at midnight), it’s easier to just wait til after suhoor when it’s cooler and quieter to fall asleep. Of course, there’s still the problem of the bed being a foot too short with headboards…

My bed, a traditional hand-carved Swahili style. Swahilis were renowned for their wood carving and woodworking, especially the intricately carved doors and beds.

My bed, a traditional hand-carved Swahili style. Swahilis were renowned for their wood carving and woodworking, especially the intricately carved doors and beds.

I found out my last day in Nairobi too that apparently white guys go to Mombasa to find wives, which finally explains why everybody is constantly asking me whether I have a girlfriend or want a Kenyan wife (granted, this happens to most male tourists here, but it seemed particularly frequent this go round). Kenyans tend to marry early, quickly, and have lots of kids, so I’m sure I look like a bit of a social failure to them as a 28-year-old single male.

On Wednesday, my brother Saidi and I went walking all over town, so he could remind me of the best spots to visit and show me the new ones. We took a walk down to the beach too and just enjoyed the beautiful weather.

Panorama of the ocean view during our walk, with Saidi in picture

Panorama of the ocean view during our walk, with Saidi in picture

I was surprised to realize that this is actually the coolest part of the year in Kenya, with temperatures only hitting the mid-80s and humidity about 70%, so the days have been just gorgeous. Not much rain so far either; just a predictable but brief shower in the late afternoon (kind of like Jacksonville, Florida!). Of course, when Saidi and I tried to just sit for a bit on a bench overlooking the ocean, we were accosted by all sorts of kids, probably from ages 5-14, who came running over to ask for money.

Our view of the Indian Ocean along Saidi and I's walk

Our view of the Indian Ocean along Saidi and I’s walk

I actually wouldn’t have stopped where we did if it were just me, because I know to expect this kind of thing, but it’s not something Saidi typically has to think about. Of course the usual exchange happened: I immediately start speaking Swahili, established that I’m not a tourist, and the kids are surprised and get a kick out of it, especially when I start using some of the Nairobi slang with them. Who’s this weird white guy speaking slang from slums like us? This part is actually really fun, because we’ll usually exchange questions, and they’ll ask me things about America and why I’m here. Inevitably though they start asking for money again, except now they’re pushier about it. I discovered once back in 2007 just how dangerous it can be to get surrounded by 20 preteens all pushing towards you and grabbing at you to get your attention, especially if you do happen to give something out (candies, in that particular case). So I’ve learned to avoid those kinds of situations, or extract myself from them quickly. Saidi realized pretty quickly how pushy the kids were getting, and helped me talk my way out and leave. A few of them followed us continuing to ask for things, and when Saidi started explaining to them, in Swahili, that I was a student and that we just wanted to walk, etc., one of the kids – also in Swahili and thinking I couldn’t speak well enough to understand – tried whispering to Saidi to be quiet so he could work this mzungu (white person). Well Saidi got pretty pissed at that and told the kid off. They left, but I could tell Saidi remained pretty upset about that for the rest of the walk, especially when this really pushy tuktuk (call it a motorized tricycle car) driver followed us for like a block trying to get me to pay him for a ride not 10 minutes later, and Saidi retold the story rather heatedly to his brothers and then later his mother back home. He also told it with this ‘I’m Daniel’s protector and I wasn’t about to let these kids mess with him’ kind of attitude, which made me feel good :)

My protector

My protector

The whole event just struck me because I think it was the first time Saidi had seen how white people get treated when walking around town, and it seemed to bother him a lot. It really is frustrating how many people you come across who just want to work you for money (or a wedding proposal, which kind of amounts to the same thing but less directly). It’s completely draining having to be distrustful and wary of everybody you meet around town. That’s part of why I really enjoy staying with my homestay family though, because they really do take an interest in me and my work rather than my money, and treat me as family, even despite the fact that they make money on the rent I pay for the room and whatever else I buy for the household. In fact, pretty much all of Kibokoni, the heavily Muslim part of town where I stay, treats me that way. Here I can greet people with the traditional asalaam alaykum as I go by (it’d be rude not to), and receive a polite greeting or interested question in return. I think it is this area of the city, Old Town as they call it, where the traditional Swahili culture is still at its strongest, that one can really say Mombasa raha.

I literally used this picture to teach Saidi the word 'selfie'

I literally used this picture to teach Saidi the word ‘selfie’