NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 12 – Mohamed Rashid has nostalgic recollections of taking leisurely walks down the narrow streets of the old section of Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa as a child while marveling at its aesthetic beauty and splendor.
The elderly native of Mombasa old town, a world heritage site, said it was therapeutic to take an evening stroll along its meandering but well-manicured streets amid a cool breeze from the nearby Indian Ocean.
Rashid’s fond memories of the natural beauty of his ancestral birthplace is now being replaced by some regret as he witnesses rapid development that has also defaced nearby heritage sites.
“As a life-long resident of Mombasa old town, I have always been drawn to its world-class architecture, ancient bazaars and hospitable residents,” Rashid said during a recent interview.
“Unfortunately, the ongoing construction of tall buildings has desecrated the heritage of a centuries-old town square that has always been a draw to local and foreign tourists,” he added.
He regretted that investors who are putting up new mansions in Mombasa old town have paid lip service to its ecological integrity and that of nearby heritage sites that have placed it on the global map.
“The unregulated construction is also weakening the foundation of ancient buildings our ancestors bequeathed us and we are worried the next generation may be denied a chance to enjoy the beauty and serenity associated with this revered section of Mombasa,” said Rashid.
He said that regulatory authorities should intervene in order to preserve the integrity of an old section of Kenya’s second-largest city whose construction dates back more than five centuries ago.
According to archived records, the Mombasa old town which covers a 72 hectares radius was home to Arab, Asian, Portuguese and British settlers for centuries while its architecture is a reflection of the culture of those early inhabitants.
Some of the most popular scenic attractions within Mombasa old town include Fort Jesus, which was built by the Portuguese towards the end of the 16th century to protect a prized ancient trading hub from foreign invaders.
Raphael Gombo, head of Public Programs Office at Fort Jesus said that its nomination to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site list has elevated its status as a world-class tourist destination.
He said the Kenyan government and overseas donors have intensified efforts to preserve the architectural integrity of Fort Jesus amid threats linked to mushrooming real estate development in Mombasa old town.
“Some efforts have been ongoing for the last 20 years to help preserve Mombasa old town and its ancient buildings like Fort Jesus,” said Gombo.
The local communities are actively involved in preserving this heritage. We have a Mombasa old town conservation office that has been fighting against unplanned development,” he added.
He said that the National Museums of Kenya and the Mombasa county government have coordinated efforts to protect heritage sites from encroachment by private developers.
Gombo said that grassroots conservation lobby groups have also filed court cases to halt the construction of new buildings which threatens the architectural integrity of heritage sites like Fort Jesus.
“We are pushing for restricted development to ensure that Fort Jesus and other ancient buildings are not delisted from UNESCO world heritage sites,” said Gombo.
He said that preserving the ecological and structural integrity of Mombasa old town is key to sustain the flow of local and foreign tourists and dissuade them from relocating to rival heritage sites like Indian Ocean archipelago of Zanzibar.
Mathias Sipeta, a member of a community-based rights advocacy group, said that legal interventions aimed at protecting coastal heritage sites from desecration by private developers have been rolled out in the recent past.
“We are currently following up on a case where one house actually went down during the construction of a new modern house within Mombasa old town,” said Sipeta.
“Right now the construction has stopped and we are waiting to see how the owners of the old building can be compensated. Of major concern is the issuance of construction permits in the old town which is a heritage site,” he added.
He said that local authorities should crack the whip on unscrupulous developers who are defacing the natural beauty of Mombasa old town and avert the likelihood of its delisting from UNESCO world heritage site.
Fatima Ali, a middle-aged female resident of Mombasa old town said that unregulated construction of modern buildings has been accompanied by environmental and social disruptions.
“The old houses that have survived for centuries could even collapse as their foundations are now weak due to heavy dredging of the ground to pave way for construction of tall buildings,” said Ali.
She said that local communities have rallied behind efforts to preserve heritage sites within Mombasa old town which makes huge contributions to their livelihood through tourism.