The Coast Travel Guide

The coast is a world apart from “upcountry” Kenya and in many ways it feels like a different country. For a start, Mombasa, Kenya’s second city, is a much easier place to enjoy than Nairobi. With its sun-scorched, colonnaded streets, this is the quintessential tropical port – steamy and unbelievably dilapidated – and it’s fun to shop here, stroll the old city’s alleys, or visit Fort Jesus. To the north and south of Mombasa there are superb beaches and a number of tourist resort areas, but nothing, as yet, highly developed in the Florida or Canary Islands sense. You can certainly enjoy yourself having a lazy time at a beach resort, but there’s a lot more to the coast than recliners, swimming pools and buffet meals.

Most obviously, the beaches are the launch pad for one of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. With rented equipment, you can do some spectacular dives, but even with a simple snorkel and mask, which are easily obtained, you can discover what really is another world. The two most spectacular areas are enclosed in marine national parks, around Watamu and Malindi, and at the island of Wasini.

The string of islands that runs up the coast – Wasini, Funzi,Chale, Lamu, Manda, Pate and Kiwaiyu – are all very much worth visiting. Apart from their beach and ocean attractions, most of them have some archeological interest, which is also a constant theme on the mainland: the whole coast is littered with the ruins of forts, mosques, tombs and even one or two whole towns. Some of these – including Fort Jesus, the old town of Lamu and the ruined city of Gedi – are already on the tourist circuit, but there are dozens that have hardly been cleared and make for compelling excursions if you’re adventurous.

Islam has long been a major influence on the coast, and the traditional, annual fast is widely observed during the month of Ramadan, when no food or drinks are consumed during the hours of daylight. Visiting the coast at this time might leave a slightly strange impression of a region where everyone is on night shift, but in practical terms it usually makes little difference. The end of Ramadan is marked by major festivities, as are several other Muslim holidays throughout the year.

Environment and wildlife on the coast

The hundreds of kilometres of sandy beach that fringe Kenya's low-lying coastal strip are backed by dunes and coconut palms, traversed by scores of streams and rivers. Flowing off the plateaus through tumbling jungle, these waterways meander across a narrow, fertile plain to the sea. In sheltered creeks, forests of mangrove trees cover vast areas and create a distinctive ecological zone of tidal mud flats.

Most of Kenya’s lowland forests are on the coast and along the banks of the lower Tana River. The rainforests, all threatened by human incursion, include Witu forest near Lamu, the Mida-Gedi forest near Watamu, the Sabaki River Forest near Malindi, several forest fragments in the Shimba Hills, and the Ramisi River Forest on the southern coast. Several of the kaya sacred areas, such as Kaya Diani and Kaya Kinondo, are similar, although they’re too small to have a rainforest microclimate. The most important area of natural forest is the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve, south of Malindi. Arabuko-Sokoke is unique in that it comprises a largely unbroken block of 420 square kilometres of coastal forest, consisting of Brachystegia woodland (containing a huge variety of birdlife), dense Cynometra forest, and zones of mixed lowland rainforest that are very rich in plants, mammals and insects.

Wildlife on the coast is in keeping with the region’s lush, intimate feel. The big game of upcountry Kenya is more or less absent (though Shimba Hills National Reserve southwest of Mombasa is an exception), but smaller creatures are abundant. Monkeys are especially common, with troops of baboons by the road, vervet and Sykes’ monkeys frequenting hotel gardens, and spectacular Angolan colobus monkeys inhabiting the forests behind Diani Beach. Birdlife is prolific – if you have even a mild interest you should bring binoculars. On the reptile front, snakes, those brilliant disguise artists, are rarely seen (except in a number of snake parks), but lizards skitter everywhere, including upside down on the ceiling at night, and bug-eyed chameleons waver across the road, sometimes making it to the other side. So do giant millipedes, up to 30cm long: these harmless scavengers have been nicknamed “Mombasa Express”, after the famously slow train. Insects are here in full force (although thankfully efforts to eradicate mosquitoes are paying off), and the glorious butterflies of the Diani and Arabuko-Sokoke forests, are attractive participants in the coast’s gaudy show.

Inland from Mombasa

MAZERAS is just 20km up the hill from Mombasa. If you’re coming from Nairobi, this small town marks the end of the long vistas of scrub; it’s perched right on the edge of the steep scarp, amid bananas and coconuts. If you’re travelling by road, it isn’t a bad idea to break your journey here and savour the new atmosphere. The hotelis serve good, flavourful, coastal chai and there is a slightly unkempt botanical garden on the Mombasa side of town, which makes a good break for the travel-weary. Across the highway (on the southwest side) and up the hill a little way is a mission and its century-old church, signs of an evangelical presence in the hills behind Mombasa that goes back, remarkably, more than 150 years.

For historians of Methodism and the Church Missionary Society or, perhaps more likely, connoisseurs of palm wine, the road to Kaloleni, 22km north of Mazeras, is a required sidetrack. It’s a wonderfully scenic drive in its own right, looping through lush vales, with a wide panorama down to the coast to the east. Masses of coconut trees sway all around and, invariably, there are groups of flamboyantly dressed Mijikenda women walking along the roadside: leaving the highway you’re instantly back in rural Kenya.

The Mijikenda peoples

The principal people of the coastal hinterland region are the Mijikenda (“Nine Tribes”), a loose grouping whose Bantu languages are to a large extent mutually intelligible, and closely related to Swahili. They are believed to have arrived in their present homelands in the sixteenth or seventeenth century from a quasi-historical state called Shungwaya, which had undergone a period of intense civil chaos. This centre was probably located somewhere in the Lamu hinterland or in the southwest corner of present-day Somalia. According to oral tradition, the people who left it were the Giriama, the Digo, the Rabai, the Ribe, the Duruma, the Chonyi, the Jibana, the Kauma and the Kambe (not to be confused with the Kamba of the highlands around Machakos).

All these tribes now live in the coastal hinterland, the Giriama and the Digo being the largest and best-known. Like so many other Kenyan peoples, the Mijikenda had age-set systems that helped cut across the divisive groupings of clan and subclan to bind communities together. And these involved some fierce traditions: the installation of a new ruling elders’ age-set, for example, required the killing and castration of a stranger. This, like most of the milder practices of tribal tradition, was abandoned in the early twentieth century.

The Mijikenda have always had a diverse economy. They were cultivators, long-distance traders, makers of palm wine (a Digo speciality now diffused all over Mijikenda-land), hunters, fishermen and herders – the Duruma especially and, at one time, the Giriama, were almost as fond of cows as the Maasai. They still maintain local market cycles. These are four-day weeks in the case of the Giriama: days one and two for labour, day three for preparation, and day four, called Chipalata, for the market.

Despite acquiring all the trappings of modern life along with most Kenyan peoples, the Mijikenda have been unusually successful at maintaining their cultural identity. They warred with the British in 1914 over the imposition of taxes and the demand for porters for World War I. And they have preserved a vigorous conservative tradition of adherence to their old beliefs in spirits and the power of their ancestors. While this is very apparent from the resurgence of interest in preserving their traditional sacred groves, or kayas, and getting graveposts (vigango) returned from foreign collections, it’s also notable in the relative ease with which you can pick up CDs of traditional music, especially in Mombasa: wonderful rhythms and some very delicate chivoti flute melodies.

If you’re a little off the beaten track, are really interested and have time to spare, even casual enquiries will elicit invitations to weddings or funerals, where the old traditions – and music – are still very much the centrepieces, despite a veneer of Christianity or Islam. Many Mijikenda have found conversion to Islam helpful in their dealings with coastal traders and businessmen. The conversion seems to be the latest development in the growth of Swahili society, and that change is probably the biggest threat to Mijikenda cultural integrity.

North of Mombasa

While the north coast is busier, brasher, and much less pastoral than the south coast, the resorts are closer to the airport and Mombasa city and there are more targets for day-trips, though it’s not as appealing if you simply want to stretch out on the beach. The resorts start with Nyali, just ten minutes’ drive from the city centre.

Swahili coastal culture

For perhaps two thousand years, foreign ideas have been shaping the society, language, literature and architecture of the coast. Immigrants and traders from Arabia, Persia and India have been a subtle and gradual influence here. They would arrive each year in March or April on the northeast monsoon, stay for a few months, and return in September on the southerly monsoon.

Some, either by choice or mishap, would be left behind. Through intermarriage from the earliest times, a distinct ancient civilization called Swahili emerged. Swahili, a name thought to derive from the same Arabic root as sahel, meaning edge or coast, is also a Bantu language. Known to its speakers as Kiswahili (and correctly written kiSwahili), it is one of the most grammatically mainstream of the huge family of Bantu languages, and very typical of the family. Like all old languages used by trading peoples, Swahili contains strong clues about who its speakers mixed with – it’s full of Arabic-derived words and peppered with others of Indian, Portuguese and English origin.

The Swahili are not a “tribe” in any definable sense – they are the result of a mixed heritage: families who can trace their roots to foreign shores in the distant past tend to claim superior social status. And, while Swahili culture is essentially Muslim, people’s interpretation of their religion varies according to circumstance.

The towns

Like the Swahili language, it used to be thought that the towns of the coast began as Arab or even Persian trading forts. It is now known that Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and a host of lesser-known settlements are essentially ancient African towns that have always tolerated immigration from overseas. With the odd exception, however, efforts to compromise their independence were met with violent resistance. When the Portguese arrived at the end of the fifteenth century, cultural memories of the Moorish occupation of their own country were still fresh. Accommodation to Islam was not on their agenda and, despite a long acquaintance with the coast, they never established an enduring colonial presence. They fared better in Goa on the Indian coast, further along the same monsoon trading route.

The slave inheritance

Historically, slavery on the coast was quite different from the kind of slavery associated with the Atlantic slave trade. Although refugee and convict slaves were not uncommon, pawn-slavery was a more structured version of the institution. For example, the Mijikenda peoples, who lived in the coastal hinterland, maintained close links with the coastal towns, trading their produce and providing armed forces when the towns were under threat, and receiving, in exchange, goods from overseas, especially cotton cloth and tools. As traders, the Swahili periodically accumulated surpluses of grain on the coast at times of severe drought inland. In exchange for famine relief, Mijikenda children or marginalized adults would then be taken to the towns by their relatives and fostered with Swahili families with whom they had links – to become pawns, or in effect domestic or farm slaves. Later, they married into their adoptive families, or paid off the debt and returned inland. But sometimes circumstances altered and, for various reasons, a small number of these indentured labourers were sold overseas, though the trade was always fairly insignificant.

When, in the late eighteenth century, the slave trade itself became a major aspect of commerce, and the available foreign goods (firearms, liquor and cloth) became irresistible, then any trace of trust in the old arrangements vanished. The weak and defenceless were captured and sold to slavers from the coast, often to end up on Dutch or French plantations in the Indian Ocean, or in Arabian households. And, with the domination of the Sultan of Oman on the coast in the early nineteenth century, and the large-scale migration of Arab families to East Africa, slaves from the far interior were increasingly set to work on their colonial coastal farms and plantations. When the British formally freed the slaves in 1907, they became a new social class in Swahili society.

Swahili proverbs and sayings

The Swahili are renowned for the imagery, rhythm and complexity of their proverbs. Kangas always have some kind of adage printed on one side and these are often traditionally Swahili. The first one listed below is the one most often heard. For more kanga aphorisms, see

Haraka, haraka: haina baraka – Haste, haste: there’s no blessing in it.

Nyumba njema si mlango – A good house isn’t (judged by) its door.

Mahaba ni haba, akili ni mali – Love counts for little, intelligence is wealth.

Faida yako ni hasara yangu – Your gain is my loss.

Haba na haba kujaza kibaba – Little by little fills the jug.

Kuku anakula sawa na mdomo wake – A chicken eats according to her beak.

Mungu alihlolandika, haliwezi kufutika – What God has written cannot be erased.

Heri shuka isiyo kitushi, kama shali njema ya mauwa – Better an honest loincloth than a fancy cloak (of shame).

Mke ni nguo, mgomba kupalilia – A wife means clothes (like) a banana plant means weeding.

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written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 26.04.2021

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