KENYA: Mombasa’s scenic Mama Ngina Drive has, this week, been in the headlines following a report by the Public Investment Committee that parts of the public utility land has been allocated to third parties. These allegations have caused an uproar among furious residents, hoteliers, heritage conservationists and politicians who have called for urgent investigations to not only nab the culprits but also have the land reversed back.
Their reaction is testament to the fact that Mama Ngina Drive is one of the main attractions of the coastal town and it is impossible to talk about Mombasa’s sites without mentioning the picturesque seafront recreation site.
It is the county’s only public park and is open 24 hours a day. National Museums of Kenya (NMK) Coast region Assistant Director Athman Hussein says the Drive has a rich heritage dating centuries back.
“There has been several excavations in the park that point to existence of a town dating back to 12th Century. Wars between Swahili clans saw inhabitants of the town migrating to Old Town and other areas within the town, thereby abandoning this site which was later gazetted as an NMK park,” he says.
The facility, which has retained its traditional Coastal allure, has hawkers always at hand selling madafu, kachiri (cassava crisps), palm heart (moyo wa mnazi) among other local products. Eager photographers are also there, ready to freeze your special moment at just Sh100 while makeshift coffee outlets will quench your thirst and allow you sample Swahili delicacies - kaimati, viazi karai and vitobosha.
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During the day, visitors get to take in verdant lawns of neighbouring homes and possibly catch a glimpse of huge ships sailing by on their way to the Port of Mombasa. At night, the drive lights up thanks to numerous billboards that line the street advertising various services and goods. Enterprising Kenyans are also at hand plying their various wares and fun activities while the nearby disco club provides an entertainment option for revellers.
In the last couple of days, we spent time at the site to determine if the drive is indeed as popular as it is touted to be. During this time, we observed lovers who’d tour the site to lean against the metallic bars, right at the edge of the long stretch, watching the waves and enjoying the cool sea breeze. Clearly oblivious of the going ons around them. For such couples, Mama Ngina Drive is an ideal lovers’ haven.
We also, on different days, found groups of young people sitting inside their car, enjoying a drink of choice and listening to loud music from their vehicle’s music system. We approached one such car that was blasting Bongo music and found six young men chewing khat and drinking alcohol. Their leader Sam said they would be at the site until the wee hours just chilling.
“To enjoy yourself at any club, you need to have well padded pockets. But here, with as little as Sh1,000 we can have entertainment for all of us,” he said.
Clearly for Sam and his ilk, Mama Ngina Drive is the ultimate entertainment spot while for 50-year-old Hatib Hassan, this is where he comes to unwind after a hectic week.
“The sight of these ocean waves crashing onto the shores and splashing against the cliffs soothes my mind and helps me steady my focus for the coming week. As a staunch Muslim, I find the noisy city bars and women who frequent them unsettling. Here I can enjoy myself without interference from any quarter,” he said.
For Martha Ngele and her cousin Dorcas Wawuda, the breeze and relaxing atmosphere is what makes them visit the park every weekend.
“I come here to enjoy the breeze as I munch kachiri (cassava crisps) and sip madafu (fresh coconut juice). Sometimes I also ride a bike and I will soon start skating,” Martha said.
But not everyone comes to the drive seeking leisure, there are the eager businessmen who take advantage of the numbers to make a quick buck.
Noor Mohammed, 23, who operates a bouncing castle at the children’s play park, says business thrives no matter the time - day or night.
“At any given time, I have at least 20 children playing at the bouncing castle. I charge Sh200 per child which grants them access to play until they are exhausted,” said Mohammed who sets up shop only during the weekend.
Josphat Karuga, 23, who operates a toy car business adjacent to Mohammed’s bouncing castle, said families visiting the park are the lifeline of his business. He charges each child Sh100 for a 200-metre ride. That has young children taking a ride inside the big toy cars at a cost of Sh100 for a 200-metre distance.
“There will always be families willing to visit as long as they are assured of their security. Business is good when such families visit. There was a time when threats of insecurity were on every resident’s tongue and business took a plunge as people kept off ,” he said before rushing off towards vehicles that have just entered the park.
At 11pm on a Friday night and people are still streaming into the facility, and families could be seen enjoying a meal.