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The story behind the tusks of Mombasa

 Tourists have a view of elephant task ' Pembe Ya Ndovu' a long Moi avenue in Mombasa.[Omondi Onyango,Standard]

Travel to Mombasa is not only about palm-fringed pristine-white beaches. Travellers also visit to see and learn about the historical monuments found here such as Pembe za Ndovu (elephant tusks), Keingeleni (the bell place) and Fort Jesus.

I have made it a routine to stop over by the historical Pembe za Ndovu. In fact, locals say you haven’t visited Mombasa if you miss out on the chance to view this historical emblem.

During a recent visit to Mombasa, I visited Mapembeni and to my delight, the changes the historical monument has undergone are quite impressive.

“Pembe za Ndovu, also fondly referred to as Pembe za Mombasa is a unique historical and remarkable site to take memorable pictures and capture sentient moments of a visit to the former colonial town of Mombasa,” says Martin Mburugu, a resident hotelier.

Mburugu has been in Mombasa for more than three decades and has witnessed the former wooden tusks transform into a magnificent tourist attraction.

He wishes the county would do more to make the historical site a worthwhile revenue-generating site.

Each visit is a different experience. For instance, this time around, I noticed that the two tusks create the letter M – the first letter of Mombasa, to which many visitors associate to a welcome signal to the island. 

Constructed by the British colonial administration, the giant tusks served as a commemoration of the historical visit to Kenya by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. The Queen reportedly stayed at the Mombasa Yachting Club.

The original tusks were made of wood and canvas that were to mark the entry of the royal visit on her way from the airport through Kilindini Road (now Moi Avenue) to her residence by the sea. They stood at a site a few metres down the road from where the present ones stand on Moi Avenue. 

The tusks were apparently to be removed after the visit but due to their proximity to the present day Uhuru Gardens, this was shelved. 

In 1956, Princess Margaret visited East Africa and Mauritius. Her visit was to start from Mombasa, and what a better way to enchant the princes than welcoming her with refurbished tusks. The monument became even more popular after her visit.

Due to this visit, in 1956, the Mombasa Municipal Council decided to rebuild the elephant tusks,” giving them a more imposing appearance by using aluminum, which made the monument weather resistant. 

Their fame shot beyond the coastal borders rapidly when US Marines volunteered to give them an upgrade by painting them on several occasions whenever they were visiting the coastal town.

Soon, they become an important symbol to travel agencies who began to link the tusks to their activities and events.

They also became a constant reminder that Kenya is the country of wildlife and savannah, which is just over a hundred kilometres from Mombasa.

Tourists and locals loved the re-branding and visited the free site in troves. Local artistes also joined the fray, tapping into the magnificent piece of art, making several replicas that sold as souvenirs including sculptures, key chains, fridge magnets, stamps and digital images.

Following this development, the Municipal Council also put in place strict measures and penalties against those who commercialised the monument for personal gains. The local government henceforth became the custodian of the symbolic tusks.

In 2017, the County of Mombasa in partnership with Mombasa Cement, undertook another refurbishment, the latest so far to give the monument its present status – a gigantic monument.

Today, the tusks site is a beehive, with locals, domestic, and international visitors flocking it to capture a monumental experience. “You cannot visit Mombasa and fail to have a selfie moment at the Pembe za Ndovu,” says Ruth Mulei, a resident.

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