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Waves eat up 600-year-old Jumba la Mtwana Ruins

By Philip Mwakio | March 15th 2021

A section of Jumba la Mtwana Ruins in Mtwapa, Kilifi County, which is on the verge of being washed away by sea waves. The beach line fronting the site is also a breeding ground for endangered sea turtles. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

The 600-year-old Jumba la Mtwana Ruins in Kilifi County is on the verge of collapse due to effects of global warming.

The walls of the village built in the 14th century are slowly falling into the ocean owing to effects of erosion that scientists blame on increasing water levels.

A tour of Jumba la Mtwana (the large house of the slave), which in the past was a tourist attraction site, reveals the historical site has been damaged by climate vagaries.

Overgrown grass and shrubs are intertwined with century-old gigantic Baobab trees and the medicinal neem trees. The ruins are also badly damaged by fallen trees or tree branches.

Washed into sea

Disintegrating walls that once formed the residential homes, a palace and mosques complete without roof tops, graves and graveyards and disused water wells have been covered with litter. 

"A section of the foundation of the Grand Mosque has been washed into the sea," said Jumba ruins curator Hashim Hinzano Mudzomba.

Prof Elizabeth Mazrui, who is a regular visitor to the historical site, took to her Facebook page to express her displeasure after seeing the sorry state of the ruins.

"During a recent visit to Jumba la Mtwana ruins in the company of my two helpers and niece, we were saddened by the fact that NMK, who are the custodians of all heritage sites in the republic, has done little to preserve the ruins. There is encroachment by an investor who has put up a restaurant that is extending right into the area where turtles breed," she said.

Further, she argued that mass events like wedding parties being held on the hallowed grounds where the ruins stand were distorting the site.

There are no written historical records of the town but the National Museums of Kenya says the ceramic evidence indicates that the town had been built in the 14th century but abandoned early in the 15th century.

The dating is based on the presence of a few shreds of early blue and white porcelain with lung-ch'uan celadon, and the absence of any later Chinese wares.

The museum's Coast Regional Keeper of Culture and Heritage, Athman Hussein, said Jumba la Mtwana Ruins was one of the Coastal region's archeological gems that was earmarked for rehabilitation and management.

"It holds a treasure trove full of early history of the Swahili people, how they lived and the kind of economic activities they undertook at that time," he said.

Hussein says already NMK has conducted several studies to see how much the sea has risen to encroach on the monuments.

"After initial assessment, we had set aside Sh150 million to carry out refurbishment works on this historical site but owing to the Covid-19 spread which put a cap on government spending, the project, which was to prevent further erosion on nearby monuments will have to wait a little longer," Athman said.

Part of the stabilisation efforts, the NMK official said, will be to secure the ruins that have been affected by vegetation like falling trees.

Hussein said NMK was constrained on their approach to build a wall like what has been done at Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa and Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi.

"The beach line fronting the Jumba la Mtwana ruins are popular breeding grounds for the endangered sea turtles. This has left us with few options of trying to come up with a wall to prevent sea water from encroaching the site," said the official. 

However, he is quick to point out that NMK has not broken any rules in leasing out a section of the site where an Italian restaurant stands.

"When you go to a museum in say London, you will be able to see restaurants and other events taking place there. We are adopting the multiple use on our heritage and cultural sites to serve both education and leisure as we seek to boost visitation," Hussein explained.

At the same time, he added that the open grounds can be used for camping activities, parties and other social gatherings while adhering to rules and regulation that are in place in all our protected sites and monuments.

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