The ladies and I decided to follow the coastline south from Diani Beach, towards Tanzania to a place called Shimoni. It’s just off Lungalunga-Ramisi Road (A14), a tiny settlement at the extreme southeastern tip of Kenya. The view heading there was what you’d expect — a lot of farmland with palm trees swaying in the breeze, virtually no traffic other than the occasional herder with his cows, sparsely populated [as far as we could tell].
There is this massive industrial site just off the highway. You can only imagine that it’s the primary employer of the region.
Everything was cool. The weather was hot, but with the windows down we got a nice breeze coming in to keep us comfortable. That is, until we turned off the highway to head towards Shimoni. There’s a sign pointing you in the right direction, and if you look at a map, there’s a line where the road is. But what it doesn’t show is that it’s a dirt road. And not your ordinary dirt road. This road was so violently bumpy that we slowed to under 10 mph to keep from getting concussions. At times we were’t even moving as fast as those on foot.
It was taking so long that we weren’t even sure if we were going in the right direction anymore. Shimoni isn’t supposed to be that far from the paved roads. We stopped and asked some pedestrians for directions and we were going the right way, but the road wasn’t going to get much better. They said most people walk in the area, hours a day to and from work. Believable considering we didn’t pass or get passed by any other vehicles along this long stretch of road.
The area has had its recent issues. There have been groups who have called for the coastal tribes of Kenya to secede from Kenya. There has been violence in the area as well, enough that Nduku’s parents questioned why we would travel to the area. We saw the police roadblocks, but that’s common all over Kenya. And here we were, barely able to go faster than someone on foot, in an area with no mobile coverage, no even sure if we were heading towards the ocean or Tanzania.
There was a moment we were going to turn around, but we persevered, not wanting to have having traveled for hours just for nothing.
Along the way, though, we could see signs of the first world doing what it could for the third world. There were these makeshift water towers scattered in the area to bring fresh drinking water to the population. There were projects where NGOs [non-government organizations] built public outhouses for the people. We even saw a medical clinic that Nduku’s non-profit was a part of.
Eventually, we made it to the end. And I must say, I underestimated how tiny this tiny place was. It’s essentially two roads at the end of the dirt road. Literally. I looked at the map when we got back to see if we missed something but no, it’s basically two paved roads. Unlike the ride there, though, it was crowded with people. This is obviously the only place in the area with anything for anyone to do.
When we pulled up, this guy came running towards the car, tapping on the window wanting to talk. Nduku shoo’ed him away but he was persistent. Because of how many people were walking around, we couldn’t just speed off. But behind his shades, his flip flops and gently worn attire, we wanted none of him. However, we couldn’t shake him. He was insistent on talking, something common when visitors come into the area.
We rolled up on a couple of people at a fundraiser table, to ask for directions and hopefully shake off the window tapper. As insignificant as this corner of Kenya seemed, it was a relatively popular destination for foreigners. There’s a national marine park and reserve, boat rides on a dhow where you could see humpback whales and dolphins, an Wasini Island roughly two miles off the coast.
The island has a population of about 3,000 living at the north coast in the two villages Wasini and Mkwiro, respectively at the west and east side of the island, and inland in the hamlet Nyuma Maji, which means in Swahili ‘behind the water’. In Wasini-village and Nyuma Maji live the Bantu people the Vumba, whose mother tongue is the Swahili dialect kivumba; in Mwkiro the Kifundi (Shirazi) have their own mother tongue, the Swahili dialect kikifundi. Besides that they all speak Swahili and sometimes English. The Vumba are of Arabic origin, may be a little bit mixed with the Chinese. The Arabs came to the East-African coast in the 1st century A.D. and after mixing with the Bantu people they together formed the Coast or Swahili people. The Shirazi probably came from the Persian Gulf in the 15th century A.D. Between the island and the Tanzanian islands Pemba and Zanzibar south-east of the island in the Indian Ocean consist strong cultural connections and family ties. The population is for about 99 percent Muslim, from liberal to orthodox.
The two fundraisers didn’t have much to share. Instead, they directed us to the one person who knew everything. He happened to be guy chasing us in flip flops and tapping on our window whenever we slowed down enough for him to catch up. I really wish I took a photo of this dude so you can see how easy it was to think he was an opportunist. With all the warnings we received about traveling to the area not in a tour group, after seeing what the road was like if we had to make a get away from bandits, and rolling up into an area where everyone is staring because, well, foreigners don’t show up not in on a tour bus heading straight to the jetty, of course we were wary.
Fortunately, he understood. He probably figured it out when we waved him off, avoided all eye contact and tried to get away. Only there was really nowhere to go. Left, right or back from where we came.
His name was Mohammed. He worked with the Kenya Wildlife Services. And by with, I mean he flagged down tourists and directed them to the KWS building tucked away at the end of one of the roads. We drove that way, and even though he seemed to be vouched for, he had to walk alongside the car. It wasn’t far.
It was a gated area, though, with a very light-skinned guy manning a machine gun at the gate. He looked more out of place than us. Apparently, he got posted there and the gun was part because of the violence but also to scare away any baboons if they got a little too daring. We saw one. And it was lounging inside the gate. And it was about as tall as me. I mean, we were really in the cut when we were the only ones who seemed a bit perturbed at this massive animal just walking around, arms as long and muscular as its legs.
Mohammad was a sport. He explained to us all the options of the area. As miniature as it was, it really did have a lot of sightseeing activities. I was pretty impressive, actually. He spoke about the area, its history and its people. We asked about the road coming in and how, maybe, if it wasn’t so brutal to drive on, maybe more people would detour off the highway to come visit. He explained how that’s been a topic of discussion and debate for some time now. Half the people want to pave it. It will bring more tourists, meaning more jobs, meaning more sustainable income. The other half, though, have seen the future and know that the community will be turned upside down with an influx of tourists which means money which means developers.
What makes the area charming [I debated using that word but I’ll stand by it] is how pristine it is. It’s the real deal. There may be businesses calling themselves resorts or lodges or camps, but when you look around, this was a village waiting to be discovered.
So get this. No bandits chased us around. No one tried to sham us out our money or force a bribe to make it home. It was business as usual, but because of all the dire warnings, we [and by we I mean Nduku since I carry as little cash as possible while in Kenya] brought virtually no money. At least not enough to visit the main attraction which was the marine park and reserve.
But this is Kenya. And things are done differently. Mohammad suggested we enjoy whatever we wanted, take advantage of all the offerings, and when we’re done, he’ll ride with us back to Diani Beach where we can get the money to pay for all the activities. And you know what? I was down like four flat tires! Let’s do this!
Nduku, however, wasn’t going for it. It’s not that Mohammad seemed like a bandit, but we weren’t in Washington, DC. We were in a part of the world where virtually no one has ever heard of unless they’re from here. And if they’re from here, more than likely they’re still here.
What if on the way back someone blocked off the only way out and forced us into, well, whatever? Or when we got back the price was doubled with a couple of friends there to ensure payment. It’s not that we thought Mohammad was setting us up for that, but I guess a little caution wouldn’t hurt.
There was really one place I definitely wanted to check out and we had enough for that. It’s the Shimoni slave caves.
Once you descend into the caves, it’s as if the commotion atop ceases and you’re back in a time when life made today’s Shimoni look like paradise for people of color. There’s a tour guide and she told the story of the slave caves. How the Arabs from the peninsula would come over, capture the natives and force them down into the area’s many caves, chained up, waiting for their one-way ticket to a life odf servitude.
It was too dark to take many pictures. And there were a bunch of bats scurrying above that kept you on pins and needles. The cave isn’t that big though it was one of many. Part of it collapsed or something as it run much further underground.
It was a sobering experience. No matter how hard you tried, imaging what life was like for the enslaved is simply impossible.
Afterwards, we walked around a bit but wanted to head back before it got dark. When we got back and told our story, Nduku’s mom confessed that she was so concerned about our trip that she followed us on the highway but turned around once we reached the dirt road. Maybe she though at that point we were going to be safe when really, the adventure had just begun.