Battle to rehabilitate a degraded Old Town to modern waterfront

Scenes from the ocean water showing the degraded sections of Old Town shoreline. [Robert Menza, Standard]

A boat ride along the Old Town shoreline from Fort Jesus Museum to Madhubaha beach reveals a sorry state of affairs, as mounds of waste spot areas near the Indian Ocean waters.

The litter easily gets into the ocean water beneath the long cliff, and pollutes it. The water around the Old Town shoreline is black.

The area measuring 72ha is home to Arabs and Asians, among others, and whose culture have defined Old Town.

Mr Mbwana Abdalah, brought up in Old Town, has over the years witnessed serious environmental degradation locally. “Population growth against an improper urban planning and management procedures to enable habitable environments to thrive have led to Old Town’s fall into a sorry state, with uncollected garbage, no proper sewerage system, no fresh tap water; all pointing to serious neglect,” Mr Mbwana says.

Old Town is the buffer between the UNESCO World Heritage site and Fort Jesus Museum. It is dotted with 18th Century buildings.

Mr Mbwana, working with residents under the  Old Town Residents Association (OTRA) outfit have since 2020 been voicing and improving locals’ livelihoods. He says OTRA has been conducting monthly clean-up exercises to help clear the garbage affecting more than 10,000 residents.

Mr Mbwana says Kazi Kwa Vijana, an initiative of the national government where youths would be hired to clean environment, brought some relief when it was operational.

The former Old Town was famed for its neat narrow streets and two-to-three storey buildings of ancient Portuguese and Arab architectural designs. One of the ongoing initiatives to transform the neighbourhood is the formation of Old Town Water Front (OTWF), which is a CBO largely focused on breathing new lease of life into Old Town.

“We have experts who live in the same area and those who live outside Kenya. There are environmental experts, marine biologists, architects, town planners...” Mr Mbwana said.

The success of two huge government-funded projects - one aimed at reinforcing the foundation of the seawall around Fort Jesus Museum (which has already been completed) and the other of putting up an adjacent waterfront park by the National Museums of Kenya - has led OTWF to consider having a secured pathway that will run the length from Mombasa Club to Madhubaha beach near Allidina school.

“Our main objective is to remove and rehabilitate mountains of garbage debris that have piled up over the years. We hope to replace the garbage mounds with parks to offer recreational benefits,” said Mr Mbwana.

The group has reached out to parastatals like Kenya Ports Authority that manages Old Port harbour, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, County Government of Mombasa, Safaricom Foundation and Mombasa Cement among others. “In between the wall and the buildings, we will fill up the gap and top it up with cabro-paved roads to provide solid footpaths, then build benches for people to relax and enjoy sea view,” he said.

Part of the plans, Mr Mbwana said, will be to come up with a dedicated fishing area for old and traditional traps, build modern landing sites for speed boats and traditional Arab dhows to offer shuttle services for those living in the North Coast and working in Mombasa town.

The OTWF further envisages creating a dedicated boat-building venture at the Madhubaha site and introducing ancient Arab dhow cruise along the Old Town harbour and the Tudor Creek waters. “We will have a dedicated dhow cruise serving largely Swahili delicacies prepared by Old Town mothers and sold exclusively on the dhow for cruisers during lunch and dinner,” he said.

OTWF, Mr Mbwana said, hopes to successfully roll out its activities after it made an application to the World Bank-sponsored Kenya Marine Fisheries and Social Economic Development project under the Blue Economy venture and the European Union for financial aid to kicks tart improvement of the harbour line. 

Tourism stakeholders are hopeful the OTWF efforts to transform the Old Town shoreline will bear fruit, but remain wary of security challenges following attacks targeting tourists.

Chairperson of Kenya Association of Women in Tourism, Mombasa, Ms Janet Chamia, said attempts to give the shoreline a face-lift should come with adequate security. “We have a rich blend of history, culture and traditions in and around Old Town making it an ideal place to visit, but there is need to ensure the safety of visitors,’’ she said.