Eight hundred years ago, the Great Mosque of Kilwa was a spectacular tribute to the richest state on the East African coast. Today it is a playground. The children are a ragtag bunch with split trousers, climbing over broken walls and running under ancient alcoves tinged yellow with age. They delight in the camera. They skip between old stone pillars, shout under the domed roof of the mosque, pose in the alcove which faces Mecca, just to be seen through my lens.
Their home is in the Unesco World Heritage Site of Kilwa Kisiwani, on the southern coast of Tanzania.
The little village on the island in Kilwa Kisiwani is home to barely 1200 people, a tenth of the number who used to sleep behind its walls. Today most survive on fishing and tourism.
Kilwa was once a thriving port city straddling the trade lanes of East Africa, rich from the trade in Great Zimbabwe’s gold. The city claimed dominion over most of the islands and city-states of the east coast, all the way to Mombasa in modern day Kenya, across to Madagascar, and south to Mozambique. The town’s wealth was legendary, mentioned by Milton in Paradise Lost; its beauty was praised by the Arab explorer Ibn Battuta and the Portuguese captain Francisco d’Almeida; it traded with the Middle East, India, and even China, as early as the 11th century.
Today the great round towers of the 18th century Omani fortress provide shade for boat repairs.
We meet the children in the 12th century Great Mosque, playing unsupervised in their ruin.
The Great Palace of Husuni Kubwa, also built in the 12th century, is only kilometres away but we barely make it on foot. It is mid-morning during the hottest part of the year, and the heat is alive. A blanket of humidity, a tangible presence around us cut by rivers of sweat. It eventually inches into us as we dehydrate, invading our head with tendrils of pain starting above the neck and working forward. We guzzle our water as fast as we can, while our guide refuses any. He says he is fine and needs no water. I will come to miss this humid blanket when I leave Tanzania, but now I want only to hide from it.
Along the narrow winding footpath we glimpse villagers drawing water from a centuries-old well, deeper and cleaner than the new one.
Though these tours are touted as “community tourism”and the proceeds supposedly go back into the community, the people of the island are entirely uninvolved, and appear largely uninterested. Information about the village and villagers is given when asked, but not volunteered. Perhaps most tourists care only about the past.
The palace, Husuni Kubwa, is disappointing. Of its one hundred rooms, courtyard and octagonal pool built on the ede of a cliff, only the foundations are visible. The walls and roof are long gone.
But what is clear is its scope. It was huge.
There was probably a fishing community here before Persian settlers from Shiraz got rich taxing the trade of the Swahili coast. Fruit was grown locally as it is today. Meat was imported from the mainland, as it is today. Sail-powered mashua dhows still ply the channel between the village and the mainland, as they did then, carrying goods and people. Today there are fish traps along the coast under the palace pool.
Kilwa Kisiwani has gone from a small local fishing village, to a huge Persian trading hub, to a Portuguese outpost, to an Omani town, and back to a small fishing village.
The children are a ragtag bunch with split trousers, climbing over broken walls and running under ancient alcoves tinged yellow with age.
Kilwa was once a thriving port city straddling the trade lanes of East Africa, rich from the trade in Great Zimbabwe’s gold. The city claimed dominion over most of the islands and city-states of the east coast, all the way to Mombasa in modern day Kenya, across to Madagascar, and south to Mozambique.
North of Kisiwani, is the sandy harbour town of Kilwa Kivinje, whose wealth was tied to the slave trade, long after its southern island neighbour had fallen to ruin. Caravans snaked across the dry hinterlands to the coast where the slaves were packed into ships headed for Zanzibar, Madagascar or Reunion. Today’s big jihazi dhows ply the waters to the north and south with very different cargo.
Villagers walk at low tide to the dhows at the water’s edge, returning with bright green buckets filled with fish. Thousands of tiny black crabs scuttle across the sand. Families catch boat rides to the islands of Songo Songo or Mafia, or south to Lindi.
The town bleeds history. Intricately carved doorways in the old Swahili style rot in the blistering sun, the old German boma has long lost its roof. Families have taken shelter in yesterday’s colonial administration, a child shooing us away as we tentatively approach. Behind the boma are Swahili houses with broken walls, trees melting into walls melting back into trees, rubbish for floors.
Pockmarked walls are a reminder of the mangrove poles that would once have supported a roof here, a stairwell there. Open stone stairs lead into broken archways, giving a view over nothing but broken walls.
Residents wander through the ruins wearing bright yellow T-shirts made in China. Conservatively dressed Muslim women lead wide-eyed children, their toy a stick with a plastic water bottle at one end.
We meet a local elder, Simba, who’s name means “lion” in Swahili. He is a welcoming, kind, gentle, and bitter old man of 69 years. He has lived through colonialism to independence, Uhuru, to Nyerere’s socialist Ujamaa, to the IMF-friendly policy that the country has today. In all these years, he says, through all these disparate policies, Kilwa Kivinje did not change.
“I had a teacher, long time ago. He told me, we [Africans] just help each other to die. I remember… Now we are all waiting to die.”
“There are no factories here, no work”. He sees our fascination with his town, doesn’t resent us for it, nor, I suspect, does he believe that a few factories will truly revive the picturesque old town’s fortunes any more than will a few tourists. When we leave, he asks us for money, apologising as he does so. His tone suggests an intense dislike for this part of the ‘job’, and I suspect he would show us his town for free, if he could.
The hub of the region now is Kilwa Masoko. Historically the least interesting of the three settlements, this is now where the money is. Masoko is the place to find a decent hotel, with a half-dozen beach resorts providing fishing trips, safaris to Selous game reserve, or excursions to the nearby islands. We stayed on the beach, in a bright blue chalet with wonderful sunrise views across the sea and excellent food, coconut calamari and grilled tuna.
Cheaper but decent lodging can be found in town, where the few restaurants serve the standard fare of ugali (maize meal) or chips with some kind of meat in tomato sauce or fried fish. It is almost as good as it is cheap, and is eaten with the hands in the Swahili style.
In sharp contrast to Kivinje, Masoko is modern, solid, and clean. Banks have replaced empty houses, restaurants have replaced crumbling walls, accountants saunter past the market in crisp suits. It’s a useful gateway to the region in general and to Kisiwani in particular. It’s from here that the local boats and the expensive tours from the big hotels leave for the old ruins.
In the microscosm of time that is Kilwa, Masoko is the new, Kivinje is the old, and Kisiwani is the eternal.
This article was written by MATHIEU DASNOIS