- Established some 105 years ago in old Mombasa town, this is not your average bar. Its patrons are as diverse as they come, but the one reference point in what has become the melting point of ages is Francis, its barman of 50 years
It is easy to dismiss the relatively derelict corner house as one of the dying structures in old Mombasa but behind those antique walls lies a history possibly unsurpassed in Kenya.
It stands at a corner of a major transport and industrial hub in downtown Mombasa, just behind the Railway Station, where it has existed as a bar for the last 105 years.
This is the Kilindini Baraka: The De Souza Bar, named after the first owner whose family has run it for the last century.
Plans to hold an unprecedented street festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of probably Kenya’s oldest pub which could have resulted in a street bash rarely witnessed in Mombasa in 2008 collapsed at the last minute.
“There were delays caused by bureaucratic procedures amongst some of our potential sponsors who kept us on hold without clarifying the delays,” Ms Grace De Souza, the late proprietor of the business told this writer some years ago.
Today, the bar is run by members of the de Souza family jointly, third generation descendants of the late Alexio Caetano de Souza who travelled by dhow from Goa to Mombasa to set up the first grocery–cum–bar in the island.
Today the antique pub is a meeting place of a rainbow coalition of historical-minded revellers, some of whom have patroned the pub for over 50 years.
ITS HEY DAYS
Their father, the late Ambrose de Souza ran the bar until 1989 when he died, at what point it passed on to Ms Grace de Souza, who also recently passed on.
During its hey days, the only approach to it was by a trolley network which serviced colonial Mombasa. The pub was patronised by the elite colonial class and the emerging private sector clients, mainly servicing the ports and railways.
Back then, Africans and Asians were not allowed in the pub which practised the colour bar laws of the colony despite being owned by a Goan.
Back to the failed 100th year anniversary, the initial plan, before the planning committee was put on hold, was a half-day street bash with performances from live groups, speeches and comedy on the closed Mwakilingo Street, which would have been opened to the public.
Among the companies which had been approached to participate in the bash were the East African Breweries, Coca Cola, private media outlets and the National Museums of Kenya, which had expressed interest in conserving the building for posterity.
Regular members of the pub, once patronised by legendary writer and hunter Ernest Hemingway, had expressed their support for the celebrations.
“There is a sense of history in just patronising the bar and seeing all those people of mixed cultures daily enjoying themselves without any hint of selfish racial or ethnic exclusivity. It is a veritable melting pot,” a corporate leader from Mombasa who is a frequent visitor to the old pub told this writer recently.
The bar contains memorabilia that confirms its wide interaction with the world, including adverts from Castle Beer of South Africa dated 1927.
The furniture is aged and rounded with timely use while a grandfather clock still chimes from the top of the counter as antique fans swirl the air around the famous “Oval Table” where the regular patrons sit to enjoy their whisky.
They occasionally break out into a medley of oriental, Taarab or ‘60s rock and country music as they exchange banter about their richly spiced lives, sometimes late into the night.
The songs will depend on the majority patronage at any given time and, at times, on the level of intoxication.
When the dominant group is Asian, you can expect renditions of the popular Hindu and Mughal classics like KabhieKabhie!, which, surprisingly, are known to all on the table irrespective of origin.
When the local Swahili’s abound, it is the traditional Twari la Ndia or the Ngoma ya Matondoni, or Msegeju na Ng’ombe Wake from Lamu and various other Swahili Taarab classics.
As the night wears on, crooners will attempt to outdo Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley and other notable artistes from the West in free for all renditions.
De Souza has no radio, music player or TV but is always well patronised even when there is a major football match on.
On any day , you will find Arabs, Asians, Swahilis and Africans holding court in a convivial atmosphere while the tables outside smack of civil servants and traders.
One evening you might be sitting next to a hotel owner, a professional hunter, a major land owner, an industrialist, a Hummer-driving mining mogul, a shipping executive or a retired military commander.
Occasionally, you will get former European colonial officers, now aged, coming for a nostalgic jog, or even a Prince from the Middle East, or even tourists.
Those who are lucky to be introduced to the antique pub are usually carefully chosen to avert embarrassment from those who might not connect with its classic status. In my time, I have introduced foreign journalists, diplomats and local journalists who, fortunately, have proven their cultural suaveness.
The bar man, Francis, has been at the bar for the last 50 years and is a source of the club’s rich history which he occasionally is asked to narrate to tipsy travellers who cannot believe the age of the bar.
When Francis started serving drinks at the De Souza bar, the late Grace was a young school girl who wore ribbons with her bunny braids.
Between them, they had established a personal relationship with their vast clientele which turned them into regulars.
Francis knows all the clients by name, has most likely seen them in their most embarrassing states but maintains the same expressionless facial control that is most difficult to decipher of emotions.
Every tip, however puny, is greeted with the same monotone of “Thank you very much” to the giver, whose name is always mentioned.
Unlike many other barmen, Francis never argues with his customers but those who know him well tell of a velvety gloved rebuke which stops many a loud-mouth in their tracks.
It is virtually impossible to imagine the pub without Francis who rules it in simple and soft spoken under-tones even to the most garrulous of his heavy swigging clientele who often keep him beyond normal working hours.
For newcomers, Francis loves to show off a framed article on the pub written by the late Francis Raymond (who, incidentally, introduced me to the pub almost thirty years ago) when he was the Bureau Chief of the Nation offices at the Coast Province.
But Francis who, I can vouch, has never stepped into a British pub, exhibits the same level of discipline in all his edicts that even the wealthiest of his patrons would have no bone to pick with.
His moral authority is apparently derived from his giant personality which resides beneath his slight frame that all who know him have learnt to respect.
Today, an evangelical church which moved into the next building with a cacophonous echo a few years ago also seems to have been awed by the historical existence of the quiet bar and has brought down its decibels in respect of the mainly Islamic neighbourhood.
Some years ago, before the so-called Mututho laws, Kilindini Bar used to have a popular car service and its parking was always full of private couples or families enjoying their tipple without a hassle.
The only drawback in this popular spot is that the ownership has refused all entreaties to introduce a catering section, and revellers have to bring their own food, which has developed into a new sub-culture.
On a normal day if you are a member of the Round Table, you could end up eating game meat, Fish from a popular Bondeni Restaurant, Mishikaki from another outlet, or chicken wings from a famous mid-town exotic restaurant whose proprietor is also a member.
Prawns, squids and crabs are normal fare for the high living socialites.
De Souza’s seems ready to proceed to the next century but it obviously needs a few renovations in terms of public amenities.
There is even talk of expansion.
But none of those who know the pub, including the owners, are willing to change the antique interior, whose beer and cigarette adverts from the seventies and eighties give it that surreal feel.
It is a classic place for connoisseurs, not mere drunkards, those who can interact with and appreciate its antiquity.