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Lost in Mombasa

Host Intro: The seaside city of Mombasa, on Kenya’s eastern shore, is a diverse city with a rich history. But for some – it’s a long way from home. Chris Mossa has this commentary about getting lost in Mombasa and finding more than just directions. 


Four years ago I was looking for the Shimoni Caves – a set of holding pens used by Arabic slave traders centuries earlier. The guidebook was vague but I was told they were on the island of Likoni — an hour’s walk south from the middle of Mombasa.

Thirty minutes in – I’m walking along cliffs overlooking the Indian Ocean – and I’m lost. I stop at a small stand to buy a Sprite and ask for directions. The two brothers running the stand tell me that not only are the caves not up ahead; they aren’t even in Mombasa. They’re 60 miles south – a bus ride away, at least.

Shadrick, one of the vendors, says that he’s headed toward Likoni if I still want to go. Well, not really. I was only going to see the slave pens – an ugly remnant of the crude colonialism that dominated Kenya before the 1960s. But here I am – closer to the island than the rickety matatu bus I need to catch back to the hotel.

So, the brothers closed the stand and we set out – Shadrick and I walk ahead. His brother trails behind. He doesn’t say a word — which is unnerving. It occurs to me that this could all go very wrong.

As we near the ferry, Shadrick’s story unfolds in an arc of ugly episodes. Three years earlier, Kenya was torn apart by inter-tribal violence following a rigged election. More than 1,000 people were killed in a few chaotic weeks, including both of Shadrick’s parents.

As we reach the dock where the ferry is berthed, he explains how he and his three siblings were forced into homelessness after the death of their parents. He fell in with a street gang to survive. Ultimately, he and his brother had to steal two boxes to bury their youngest siblings.

People pile onto the ferry, stuffed in every nook and pressed against the rails. We step off into a busy street market on the island, packed with vendors hawking fish – no charge for the clinging flies.

As we weave through the market, I remind him to finish his story.

A wealthy man took him in – fed and clothed him and brought him to a government-run rehabilitation center for orphaned kids. He enrolled in electrical school and ultimately converted to the man’s Christianity.

It occurs to me that this impromptu tour might end in a fundraising appeal. At any moment, he’s going to suggest that I defray some of his costs. ————– But he never does. I’m embarrassed by the suspicion.

Back on the mainland, Shadrick insists on seeing me the rest of the way. As we walk, he points to the unmarked gravesites of his younger siblings. We aren’t near a cemetery.

If this fellow doesn’t ask for money soon, he’s going to be out of luck. So, finally – when I know we’re close — I ask him why he spent his afternoon with me. His answer —- because he thought I might need some help.

Shadrick explains that the man who rescued him had no reason to pull him off the street. He was wealthy and untouched by the violence. But his instinct kicked in. No agenda. No expectations. As Shadrick got his life together, he saw the man’s example as a mandate –  a guide through cynicism, a way to live.

When we come to the end, Shadrick skips a final chance to ask for money. I pull out everything I have – 800 shillings or about $10 dollars. Put it toward your schooling I say. I think he might need some help.

 BACK ANNOUNCE: Chris Mossa lives in New York and always stops at the soda stands when he needs directions.

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