Abdulswamad Ali is not your ordinary building engineer. His main work is restoring historical buildings that hold Kenya’s rich cultural heritage at the coast.
Ali serves as head of Mombasa Old Town Conservation Office (Motco), domiciled within the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).
“Conservation of our rich heritage goes hand in hand with conserving some of the buildings that still stand to date. Motco’s main role is to ensure that areas, where such buildings stand, are conserved for posterity,” he tells Home & Away at his office in Leven House - an architectural masterpiece built in 1824.
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He says restoration of old buildings is an expensive undertaking.
“Many people who have acquired some of the buildings in gazetted locations within the Old Town conservation area have chosen to completely demolish them and start from scratch,” Ali says.
Restoring an ancient building to its original state, he says, requires ample planning and resources.
“Materials for construction used in earlier days included coral, timber, lime and sand with cement coming in very much later.”
He says he obtains the original building design and drawings, most of which are readily available, before embarking on restoration work.
“In the event that no such plan exists, we carefully study the building’s existing features before starting restoration work.”
For Motco, the original Old Town area covered 72 hectares but is only able to concentrate on 32 hectares with well over 1,000 inhabited buildings.
Apart from Fort Jesus Museum, a World Heritage Site, other buildings considered to be of rich historical importance are the Leven House, Ali Curios Market that was built in 1898 and which served as the first police station in the Port City of Mombasa and Basheikh Mosque, complete with its minaret.
Others include today’s Treasury Square, Old Law Courts that was opened in 1902, Swahili Cultural Centre and the Mackinon Market.
Motco traces its origin back to January 1981 when NMK approached the University of Nairobi’s Department of Architecture with a request to undertake a pilot study for conservation and revitalisation of Old Town.
The department undertook the study in early May 1981, with the team comprising of staff and third-year architecture students as part of the department’s Historical Studies Programme.
The study consisted of a one-week field survey by the whole team and subsequent trips to Old Town by the co-ordinating group.
The mandate for the study evolved out of discussions held the previous year, including representatives of NMK, provincial and city administration and planning authorities in Mombasa as well as other parties such as Friends of Fort Jesus Society and Coast tourism associations.
It was noted that Old Town, with its long history and rich heritage, was deteriorating at an alarming rate physically as well as economically.
Participants felt that appropriate action had to be taken to conserve important sections and revitalise the area.
“It is after the deliberations that Motco came into being. We have been successful in so many ways in trying to ensure that the original face of the Old Town is conserved,” Ali says.
He attended Mombasa Polytechnic (now Technical University of Mombasa) for a diploma in building engineering between 1991 and 1994.
“After completion, I did some private work before getting employed by NMK in 1997,” he says.
“I later enrolled at Kenyatta University for a bachelor of technology in construction management and further firmed up my expertise with a six-month intensive training at the University of Lund, Sweden, where I majored in building restoration works.”
After leaving Sweden, Ali gained practical experience working in Tunis, Tunisia, before returning home.
By then, Motco was under its pioneer founder-director Kalandar Khan whom he describes as his key mentor.
Mr Khan has since retired from NMK and teaches conservation architecture at the Technical University of Mombasa.
Ali says they continue facing challenges in ensuring that conservation of the designated Old Town area is maintained.
“Some people are ignorant and just want to have their way and put up palatial homes in places where historical century-old buildings stood,” he says.