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.
They’ve just built a brand new building that overlooks Fort Jesus and some of the prettier parts of Old Town.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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 service was exceptionally terrible (Saidi was thoroughly irritated with the waiter by the time we left), but the food exceptionally good.
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.
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.