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All hail Queen Mwana Mkisi! The founder of Mombasa city

By Hudson Gumbihi | August 3rd 2021

Royalty is often associated with kings; a tradition that has existed since the medieval period when societies were extremely patriarchal.   

When reminiscing about ancient empires, names of kings dominate discourses unlike those of queens.

Yet there were powerful queens who ruled kingdoms. Examples of such female rulers were Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, Ranavalona 1, the monarch of the Kingdom of Madagascar, Yaa Asantewaa the queen mother of Ejisu in Ashanti empire of modern-day Ghana and Amina who ruled in Zaria, Kaduna state of Nigeria.

Closer home, there was Mwana Mkisi. She was a queen during the pre-Islamic era who founded Kongowea, the original urban settlement in Mombasa.

Some historians claim Mwana Mkisi was a pagan queen and mother of the 12 Swahili tribes (Twelve Nations) of Mombasa. It is believed families that have connections to the 12 tribes are the original inhabitants of Mombasa.

Most of the prominent old families in Mombasa still trace their lineage to Mwana Mkisi before the arrival of Islam, which led to the establishment of another historic dynasty, the Shirazi.

Though details of her life remain scanty, Mwana Mkisi is part of Swahili identity; representing half of their dual heritage as Bantu people who mainly profess Islam.

Shehe Mvitaff succeeded Mwana Mkisi’s dynasty, setting up the first permanent stone mosque in Mombasa whose exact founding date remains unknown though historians estimate it was around 900 A.D (Anno Domini).

During the pre-modern period, Mombasa whose trade links spread as far as China and India was an important port town for commerce in ivory, gold, and spices.

Vasco da Gama from Portugal was the first known European to visit Mombasa in 1498. It was through his influence that Fort Jesus was built between 1593 and 1596 by order of King Felipe II of Castille.

Fort Jesus which was maintained by the Portuguese epitomises the first successful attempt by a western power to establish influence over the Indian Ocean trade.


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