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The changing skyline of Mombasa town

REAL ESTATE
By Philip Mwakio | May 19th 2021
An aerial view of Majengo in Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

The rush to modernity is altering the skyline and architectural design of the port city of Mombasa.

This mainly because investors are increasingly acquiring old structures which they then bring down and erect highrise buildings.

In old settlements such as Old Town or Mji wa Kale, Bondeni and Majengo, the number of houses with ornamental balconies, whose structures were influenced by the African, Arabic and European architecture and cultures, are diminishing.

And the residents are not happy with the changes.

Old Town residents in Mombasa’s conservation area protested after a residential house said to be 200 years old was brought down.

The investor intended to put up a five-storey commercial building at the site.

The residents claimed the machines being used in the construction works had led to the collapse of surrounding buildings.

Ben Wamali, an environmentalist, said the increased drilling of boreholes to supply water to the high rise buildings was also a big concern.

“Most, if not all, of the high-rise buildings in Mombasa have boreholes because of the demand for water. The county should come up with a plan to make sure there are houses for residents but also protect the environment,” Wamali said, adding that in the past, the county by-laws stipulated the kind of houses to be built at specific areas.

Job Tumbo, the County chief of staff said some by-laws have been reviewed to allow for the construction of high-rise buildings to house the increasing population.

“All those building plans are subjected to a rigorous approval process. We know that Mombasa is the smallest urban county so we must review some by-laws to allow for the construction of those high-rise houses,” Tumbo said.

He added that they are also making sure that the city does not lose its status as a heritage site. 

Marine navigation

Meanwhile, maritime experts are concerned that the new structures, if not well planned, could obscure navigation aids for ships along the shoreline.

Last year, Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA), said it had received complaints from marine pilots that visibility to navigation aids is a problem.

During the day, reflection from rooftops, most of which are iron sheets hinder easy navigation while at night, the lights directing vessels from the aids are either partially or completely obscured.

David Jomeli, the technical director of Kenya Federation of Master Builders (KFMB), also said there was a rapid construction of buildings with glass facades and high-rise buildings whose architectural features do not conserve or integrate the original Coastal designs.

He said that in Majengo and Kingorani areas of Mvita Constituency, old Swahili four-roomed houses that used to come with communal toilets, bathrooms and kitchen are being replaced with flats.

‘’The Swahili type of houses are fading out fast because they occupied spaces for one or two families only while the new multi-storeyed buildings take up to 20 families depending on the size of the building,’’ he said.

According to Jomeli, the old Swahili houses were made of coral rocks or broken pieces of coral known as tora tora and their windows were made of casement.

The roof was covered with either makuti or galvanised corrugated iron sheets and the floors and walls were plastered with just cement and sand.

He said that in Dar es Salaam and Tanga, in Tanzania, there are such Swahili houses, and they are neatly arranged  with streets and avenues making it easier for fire engines, ambulances or taxis to navigate.

‘’But in our case, we have houses on road reserves hindering movement of emergency service providers,’’ he said, adding that the changing face of Mombasa is eroding an integral part of its culture. He called on the relevant government agencies to ensure that the city does not lose its rich historical heritage.

Francis Juma, a resident who inherited a family-owned Swahili house in the mid-90s, said the price offered by an investor made him dispose of the house and land fast.

‘’I never regretted what was offered to me by a man who wanted to buy our eight-roomed Swahili house in Majengo Kingorani in 2019.

“Today, a seven-storey building stands on the site,’’ said Juma who relocated to Taveta town.

Mombasa Old Town Conservation Organisation (MOTCO), a department within National Museums of Kenya (NMK) through its coordinator, Adulsamad Ali, said that NMK has jurisdiction in the Old Town area only.

‘’This makes it hard for us to control development outside the conservation areas of Old Town,’’ he said, adding that most historical architecture and Swahili designs are in Old Town.

“There are areas outside Old Town where there are many buildings with historical and architectural significance that have also been protected by NMK. These include Mackinnon Market, the Holy Ghost Cathedral, Stanbic Bank and Allidina Visram.’’ 

Abdulsamad said that in areas like Majengo, most of the buildings have little or no architectural significance except for the District Officer’s building that has been gazetted as a national monument due to its history and architecture.

‘’The NMK will continue to identify buildings of historical and architectural significance and will protect them,’’ he said.

In 2016, environmentalists warned that increased housing development was accelerating the sinking of the island that is also facing threats from rising sea water due to climate change.

A report by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released that year said since the beginning of the 20th century, the sea levels have been rising at a rate of about two millimetres per year with average rates along the global coastline (four millimetres per year) occurring in the 1990s. 

According to the report, the effects of related disasters are projected to increase and intensity with long term effects. The report adds that Mombasa and other towns along the East Coast of Africa are likely to be submerged by 2080. It further estimates that about 4,600 hectares of land will be submerged if sea levels rise by only 30 centimetres.  

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