By NANJINIA WAMUSWA
It is a warm afternoon and the sky over Diani beach in the South Coast is clear. The beach is bustling with activity. Tourists, both local and foreign, are busy swimming in the ocean, while others spread themselves on the dazzling, white sand, enjoying the sun.
Everyone seems lost in his or her own kind of merry. However, they are being reminded to keep law and order in the place. The message on two small green signposts inscribed in white and planted in the beach sand cannot be ignored.
The message reads: “Visitors are requested to respect Islamic traditions while visiting the mosque. No preaching and distribution of literature within the compound.”
A few metres from the signpost stands an old-looking mosque surrounded by huge baobab trees. Several cars park on the sides of the mosque, under the shadow cast by the baobab trees.
Welcome to Kongo Mosque. Believed to have been built and used by early Arab merchants for prayers as they toured the East Coast in the 14th Century, Kongo Mosque is said to be the oldest mosque in Eastern Africa. No one knows the architect or even who exactly built the mosque, which was previously referred to as Diani Persian Mosque.
A cleric and caretaker of the mosque said after the Arabs left the Coast, the mosque was deserted and became a home to bats. The huge baobab trees engulfed it and for sometime, no one knew a mosque existed there.
The mosque was later discovered by one Sheikh Mwenye Kombo about 300 years ago. According to the cleric, Kombo was asleep and while in a dream, got instructions to walk along South Coast to look for the mosque ruins.
The story goes that he was told to look for the mosque lying unused in the thickets of huge baobab trees. He finally discovered it after a few days’ walk. Kombo went back and mobilised a group of fellow men and returned to clear the baobab trees and cleaned the mosque.
Since then, the mosque has been used by Muslim faithful across Coast Province and visitors to the area. The mosque, which is named after the nearby Kongo River, has since undergone several renovations. It has also been turned into a historic and tourist attraction site.
Its entrance that overlooks the ocean, has been extended by the construction of a verandah using iron sheets, and painted white and dark green.
At the entrance are several red and khaki mats with equally beautiful flower patterns.
At the back is another signpost, with the same message as the one in the front, reminding visitors that they are in a place of worship.
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The caretaker explained that 27 of the people who built the mosque have died and buried near it. Their graves are surrounded by incomplete and rugged walls of different heights, built with local materials such as sand, chalk and stones.
This writer was denied access to take photos inside the mosque for being a non-Muslim. “You are not the only one being denied access. Even tourists who come here and are not allowed into the mosque unless they are Muslims. Our rules, like anywhere else in the world, must be observed at all times,” said the caretaker.
The mosque hosts prayers daily. However, Fridays are normally full, and those who come late do not find space, thus are forced to pray from outside.
The area around the mosque is the only one yet to be turned into a resort or hotel. The cleric said they have not allowed construction of restaurants because it is a sacred place.
Kongo Mosque offers a perfect area for fun and photo taking and many tourists have been flocking to the area to take photos.