A crest of cliffs flanks a creek from the Goshi river to the mouth of the Indian Ocean. In a bend, up there, an ancient spotter would have had a look out for visiting ships. The friendly ones would have sailed all the way in without combat, welcomed on landing with women’s ululation, below Mnarani’s old Arab town, where the new Kilifi bridge is being built by the Chinese.
Mnarani means place of the Mnara which is a minaret, pillar or tower. The remains of the old road from the sea winds up the bluff to one side of the forest that now rambles around and over the remains of the 13th century palace, houses and mosques. There is a holding cell for slaves and a guest house with a toilet by the entrance to avoid snooping. This paranoia is a clue to the desertion of the town somewhere in the 16th century. During this time, the Oromo ‘children of men’ from Southern Ethiopia and Somalia were an unsettled and violent people. The Arabs and Abyssinians (from the Ethiopian Empire) called them the Galla ‘go home’. Their constant raids and the struggle for fresh water would have taken their toll on the townspeople.
As we walk along the forest paths that weave between the rubble, tendrils of great vines flick across our faces. This site is not well visited, smaller than Gede, well preserved. My companions are Samuel, a Giriama from guest relations at the Mnarani Hotel and Esha a Bajuni from Lamu, who guides us around the Mnarani Ruins. Samuel won’t cross the shadow of a great, old Baobab. He prefers to walk around it as he doesn’t want to encounter any spirits good or evil that lurk in its hollow depths. All nine tribes of the Mijikenda – that inhabit the coastal mainland – believe that; and there are bottles and little parcels strewn around the old tree’s roots in offerings and libation.
Kayas or sacred forests grow all along this area and these beliefs have restricted access to them, halting their degradation. The social, cultural and economic changes of the last years have reduced forest cover and increased agricultural encroachment, logging and hotel developments. In a desperate attempt at preservation, eleven of thirty Kayas have become UNESCO world heritage sites.
In this forest roaming amongst the monkeys and spirits are snakes that have been caught and boxed in glass for education. Esha tells me that a cobra spat in the eyes of its keeper who was bringing it food – live chicks – and escaped into the forest preferring to do its own hunting.
We walk back to Mnarani hotel through an indigenous village of palm thatched huts. A woman swathed in a cloth carries a naked baby feeding at her nipple whilst she repairs the mud and wattle wall of her house. She takes her time, picking up the red earth, finding a rhythm in the heat of day. Both baby and mother look healthy and there on the floor, there is grain in one basket and mangoes in another.
Yesterday, I stayed at ‘Distant Relatives Ecolodge and Backpackers’, which makes the most of the coast’s forest life. Their experiments in permaculture have created a weaving greenery that is getting thicker and more productive year by year. A tree nursery and organic garden ensure a continual supply of beneficial plants. Monkeys scurry overhead as you swim and hedgehogs peek at you as you brush your teeth. All your waste is collected and used to feed the food forest where companion plants amble together. A short sandy walk weaves down to Fumbuni beach, a mangrove lined inlet near Fumbuni fishing village.
Distant Relatives hosted a Tango festival over the weekend that brought international participation, people from all over East Africa and further afield arrived to take classes with Dante and Miriam who are an Argentine – British collaboration from the biggest Tango school in the United Kingdom. Organised by Mario Ruggier of Nairobi Patamango Tango, workshops on technique were followed by dancing the balmy nights away to Latin rhythms, accompanied by live music.
Whilst, the Mnarani feels large and empty, this rustic and charming place is filled with young people on travel budgets. It is lively, with a well stocked bar and the food is home cooked and wholesome, with excellent pizzas from their wood fired brick oven, at least once a week.
Today, at the Mnarani Hotel, I am walking around the jetty and watching the sunset at cocktail hour. Earlier, I discovered that here there’s much more to do than sunbathing and exploring the forests and ancient cultures. At the beach, ‘3 degrees south’ is an impressively well stocked and picturesque water sports facility run by a couple of Australian women and their team of qualified instructors. Kids and adults paddle about from dawn till dusk and can learn to sail, windsurf and dive. The quiet waters of the creek make it a perfect location, worth planning for.
http://www.3degreessouth.co.ke/mnaraniclub/ Distant Relatives Eco Lodge http://www.kilifibackpackers.com/ For Beautiful Coastal Villas with staff that includes a cook http://holidayhomeskenya.com