By Amos Kareithi
The coral stones jutting out of rugged coastline have conspired with the abrasive waves, ceaselessly beating against the unyielding beach to keep unwanted visitors out of the island. Each step inching into the island has to be fought for and a miscalculation can send a barefoot walker tumbling into the blue waters.
Any stranger lured by the serene greenery finds soon enough that Wasini is not a walk in the park. Nonetheless, its prisinine coral gardens are a scene to behold. Here, goats peacefully graze, aware that they may be forced to retreat to higher ground up the mangrove forest when the tidal waves come to submerge their pastures.
Unlike many other islands along the expansive Kenyan coastline, the enclave has proved to be irresistible but impenetrable just as it did more than 400 years when no member of the local community was willing to venture there. The only way into the island is through a boat ride that takes about 10 minutes from the mainland at Shimoni that is 15km off the Likoni-Lunga Lunga Road.
Despite the vanguard waves roaring and scaring away any unwanted visitors, they have done little to drown the sorrowful past; whose echoes have haunted the place and arrested development. This past mixture of adventure and hope mixed with pain can only be brought alive by a few gifted locals who effortlessly roll back the layers of history dating more than four centuries back to recapture life as it was then. One such custodian of heritage is 26-year-old Iddi Bakari, who has become a repository of history and acts as a bridge between the past, the present and the future.
His eyes light up as he excitedly recounts the rich history of his people. He speaks of centuries of intrigue; hope and despair as the rich and the powerful struggled for control of the people and resources of Wasini. “A long time ago, the island of Wasini was inhabited by the Digo community. They were however captured and sold as slaves by Arabs who invaded the place. The remaining indigenous people fled to the caves of Shimoni.”
Historians estimate that a people called Wavumba, from a place called Vumba Kuu 400 years ago, first occupied the island. They were however forced by circumstances to flee, leaving the place uninhabited.
The Wavumba, the historians add, were no match for the battle-hardened Wagalla and the Maasai who raided the settlement at will as at different points they were the indomitable warriors of East Africa.
Some of the Wavumba people who escaped the spears of the mighty warriors retreated to Kigomoni in Tanzania. They would later come back to the island and were engaged in lucrative trade with the Chinese, who brought their most valued currency in ancient times – porcelain – which they exchanged for fish and mangrove poles.
Unsuitable for habitation
“The Arabs from Yemen, Omani, Pemba and Zanzibar later raided the island. The new masters joined the Wavumba in trading with the Chinese traders, which gave the island its new name. Originally it was known as Vumba Island, but was changed to Wasini, to mean short Chinese people,” Bakari explains.