20-01-2023 by Freddie del Curatolo
It was 1898, and British ships were beginning to arrive in the port of Mombasa from India, loaded with goods and tools to build the famous railway that would connect what was then Kenya's first city, as well as the most important port in East Africa, with the protectorate of Uganda.
Many of the Queen's subjects had already pushed into the interior and identified the swampy area that the Maasai called Nai'robi (cold water field) as the crossroads of the new railway line.
The ships also carried Indian laborers who were already familiar with the work and pace imposed by the British and who knew locomotives and rails.
In those days Kenyans would have called the locomotive simply "gari la moshi" (smoke machine) and the first convoy "nyoka mweusi kubwa," the big black snake.
Along with settlers and laborers, merchants and adventurers trying business in a new land also landed in Mombasa from Goa, Calicut and Bombay.
So it was that a pair of Indian businessmen, who had stayed in Zanzibar where ten years earlier the first East African inn had been successfully opened, decided to open on Vasco Da Gama Road, the main artery of Old Town that starts at the world-famous Fort Jesus, what is still remembered as Kenya's first hotel.
Today the building still retains in the historic sign and in some details inside, still the history and evocations of the time, although it has long since been used partly as a museum and partly a private school , after being closed and sold for many years, the Africa Hotel also became a grocery store, a school, and a rooming house.
Nineteen years ago merchant Yusuf Abdullah bought for two liras the building, which had long been run-down and in need of restoration. After learning about its history and learning from a 1908 book how many secrets and implications that mythical building carried, he decided in turn to open a hotel. But times had changed, and he later preferred to return to the idea of the museum, which can be visited today.
"When I bought this house it was very old. There were a few tenants living here," Yusuf told a local journalist, "but one day a young man came by, holding an old book, telling stories and events that had taken place in this very place. At the same time, officials from the National Museum of Kenya came and posted a wooden board with detailed information about the building and related activities."
This is forged on the inscription, "The first hotel in Kenya began operations in 1901. Visitors are invited inside to see the architecture and a photo gallery capturing those times, as well as the original 118-year-old carved wooden balcony."
The Africa Hotel was a structure on the Portuguese style with twelve rooms and a large dining room on the ground floor that looked like an English dinette. In 1900 it was the only building facing the sea and its balconies overlooked the Mombasa Canal. Sir James Sadler Hayes, governor of the East African protectorate from 1906 to 1909, who stayed at what he described as "the oldest hotel in Mombasa," also tells of the Africa Hotel in his diaries.
Also collected in a guest book are complaints, especially from British traders and officials who complained about the dirtiness of the area (sic!) and the strong smells of fried food, fish, and curry.
In the 1930s the Africa Hotel changed ownership; a certain Da Souza, an Indian from Goa, bought it and decided to turn it into a grocery store. The many customers had to fall back on two other hotels in the area, such as the up-and-coming Castle, while other dwellings had already been built on Vasco Da Gama Road to house consulates, government offices and stores.
Yusuf now lives on the top floor, and tourists who return to visit Mombasa's Old Town and its decaying buildings with carved doors, quaint narrow alleys, markets, and souvenir stores also have a chance to discover the history of Kenya's oldest hotel.
A good read, about past times and those who dream of reviving them, until reaching the origin of those ancient tales narrated here. It's the Kenya of «Lord of the prairie», the latest book by the spanish writer Javier Yanes.
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