In Summary
  • Scientists argue that unless 2 acres of land is reclaimed from the ocean, the fort’s foundation, already compromised, will be weakened to an extent that Fort Jesus could fall into the sea!
  • We have already lost a lot of our heritage through looting, plundering and smuggling.
  • But for conservationists, the 520-year-old pillar in Malindi, erected in 1498, remains one of the oldest European monuments in Africa!
  • Fort Jesus attracts more than 150,000 visitors in a year.

Unless it is protected, Mombasa’s Fort Jesus, a World Heritage Site monument, will in some years tip over into the Indian Ocean. That is bad news – and scientists have warned as much.

Both Ali Hassan Joho, the Mombasa governor, and Mohammed Swazuri, the chairman of the National Land Commission, do not seem to understand this. And this week, the duo emerged to stop the construction of a wall that would protect this heritage site from sea waves citing technicalities.

Unless we do something — and I am not taking brief for the National Museums — we might end up mourning like Malta and Italy.

Once upon a time, Malta Island’s Azure Window, a 28-metre natural arch, was until March 2017 the island’s major tourist attraction and the filming location of the Game of Thrones, the American fantasy drama television series created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. 

Azure Window was also the marketing asset of the island and also featured in the movies: Lash of the Titans and The Count of Monte Cristo which earned it celebrity status. But on that day, the morning of March 17, 2017 during a stormy weather, the tourist landmark finally collapsed forcing the people to reflect on the loss of a national heritage as they watched.

WRONG DECISION

The Maltese — just like us — had been warned by scientists that they had to protect the rock but paid little attention. At best, they only warned tourists against walking on top of the arch, which they did anyway, and at worst, they imposed some fines. Finally, they all lived to write the epitaph: “The flagship of the Gozitan touristic sites has sunk in its same birthplace from where for thousands of years, it stood high and proud heralding one of the natural beauties our little island is endowed with.”

Again in March 1989, the world witnessed the collapse of the famous 900-year-old 25-story bell tower in the northern Italian town of Pavia. Known as the Civic Tower of Pavia, the collapse of this 16th Century mediaeval edifice, which was an illustration of the ancient and illustrious city near Milan, led to new efforts to protect the famous the Tower of Pisa, also known as the leaning tower.

Nine months after the collapse of the Civic Tower the Italians started to remove soil underneath the Tower of Pisa and they managed to straighten it by 45 centimetres which was the original 1839 position.  Scientists said that with the stabilisation, the tower would be stable for another 300 years.

FALL INTO THE SEA

Back to Mombasa, the choice on what to do with Fort Jesus lies with our generation. The rising sea levels have been eroding the coral rocks – on which it stands - and scientists argue that unless 2 acres of land is reclaimed from the ocean, the fort’s foundation, already compromised, will be weakened to an extent that Fort Jesus could fall into the sea!

That will ultimately mark the end of a huge chunk of coast tourism – whose centre-piece is this former Portuguese fort, regarded as one of the most visible early explorer citadels in Africa.

But watching the tussle between the Museums and the county government of Mombasa on how to protect this heritage is the clearest indicator on how we treat this country’s heritage and why we are unable to see the link between tourism and heritage.

A section of Fort Jesus along which the construction of a sea wall will pass to protect the historic site from falling into the ocean. Rising sea levels are threatening the famous site and other historic sites across the Coast region, National Museums of Kenya has warned. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

We have already lost a lot of our heritage through looting, plundering and smuggling. At times, what has not been stolen has been left to deteriorate because we have no funds to preserve endangered treasures.

At most, what we have done is to gazette sites as national monuments but put little effort to mark and promote them. Thus, historical and heritage sites have been left at the mercy of a few who have the will but no money.

HOSTILE RECEPTION

When the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation offered money to turn this fort into a museum in 1961, it was Tom Mboya who led a protest in Parliament against the visit of then Portuguese Vice-President Dr Pedro Theotonio Pereira who was a trustee of the foundation and he indeed received a hostile reception in both Nairobi and Mombasa.

Lost in the protest was that the foundation was sinking some £30,000 to turn the former prison into a museum “which all civilised visitors and inhabitants of Kenya will benefit”.

The Portuguese had wanted to help in restoring their heritage along the Kenyan coast but Mr Mboya led in efforts to oppose the erection of even a Vasco da Gama statue in Malindi which was to kick-start these efforts. He said while moving a Motion in Parliament opposing Dr Pereira’s visit: “We do not recognise this Vasco da Gama and I do not see why at this particular time it was decided to build a monument for him or why this country should build any monument to him. If the British want to build a monument for Vasco da Gama, they can very well do it in Britain. In fact, I can say without hesitation that that monument will be kept or thrown somewhere very deep in sea…!

While the Vasco da Gama monument was not built, efforts were made to protect his other pillar in Malindi later on which has a symbolic Christian cross at the top.

For historians, Fort Jesus and the Malindi pillar are symbols of early commerce along the east coast of Africa and the search for the sea route from Europe to India. But to the Arabs, it has remained a symbol of conquest by the Portuguese who build Fort Jesus to lord on them.

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