On the windy south-east expanse of Mombasa Island, lay an old town with flaky white walls and ancient window sills. It lay brooding and distant like a solitary man looking at the vast sea in contemplation, and its inmates spent their lives with a cool calm flair, as if they lived inside its brain. Mizu was in Kenya’s second largest city, Mombasa.
There were narrow alleyways laden with small arts and craft shops selling yellow, red, and green maps of Africa. Mizu was walking through these hushed streets, often stopping for a while in the shade of an old house to bask in the lull of a lazy long-drawn afternoon.
Nothing troubled her here in the old town, no thought crept into her mind and held tenancy. At times, she became aware of the sea breeze that was notoriously entering her ears and distilling all of her memories. She felt as light as the petals of the white and pink gypsophila flowers that grew in the nooks and corners of the old town.
“Baby’s breath” , said an old woman who saw Mizu looking at the flowers.
“They are called baby’s breath because they symbolize innocence to us”, the woman continued. She had a warm and complex visage, one of a person who had lived a difficult yet content life. She then plucked a flower and handed it to Mizu. “Innocence”, she said again. Mizu smiled, wrapped the flower in a tissue, and placed it inside her olive satchel.
The sun shone bright along the winding path and Mizu walked up the slope crossing a couple of houses with first floors. They had carved wooden doors depicting flowers and other Swahili motifs. A while ago, she had read that the wood for these huge doors came from India during the mighty trade of the 1800s. Mizu studied the houses and saw that the balconies on the first floor had parapets so high that nobody could sneak a peak at what was happening inside.
Mizu resumed her journey onwards. She saw small arcades, cafes, and boutiques tucked into the edifice of the town like tiny shelters from the summer sun. The Africans, Arabs, Portuguese, and Brits, were all here once, living in these rich quarters in different centuries, and they had all left their mark – The Mandhry Mosque, Leven House, a rusty crusty post office…As Mizu sought refuge in one place or another, she heard a pleasant jingle coming from somewhere far off in the distance. She thought that the sound came from the dance of someone wearing delicate trinkets.
She followed the music, almost entranced by its sudden rise and fall. It led her further up a slope, around a corner, and across a narrow street. Soon, she saw the beige sands of the Swahili coast reaching towards the endless Indian Ocean – a lulled summer blue rocked by boats. To Mizu’s right was Fort Jesus, the keeper of the sound, almost echoing it with its hollowness. The fort’s brown walls had a million pores out of which peeked a gazillion little sea creatures. Mizu thought they were curious about the music too.
She climbed up some steps and entered a tiny door that led to the centre. But there was no woman dancing. Instead, there was an old man playing fado, the music of Portugal, on an instrument that Mizu failed to recognize. Earlier, the sound seemed to narrate a story of a merry time, but now as Mizu saw the old man play it in the flesh, it seemed extremely melancholic and strung her heart deeply.
The salt from the Indian Ocean greeted her at intervals and she had to remove her kerchief and wipe the grains from her pale face often. Mombassa city had an angst that wasn’t sustained, the past was distilled with the light fleeting present, like this song of the fado. It would wither away, and only those who were part of it would remember its existence. Memory.
Mizu walked back to the entrance of the fort where she had spotted a little restaurant serving island dishes. She had this unrelenting urge to try the seafood here. The proximity to the sea, the summer sun, the clear blue sky, the salt in the air, everything made her hungry.
She saw a man and woman on an adjacent table eating battered fried calamari with a smooth black dipping sauce, and looking at how they were relishing their meal, Mizu ordered for the same. It arrived crisp and golden, with a side of lime, and a glistening sauce known as the “island special sauce”. Mizu would remember this meal for a long long time, and she would return to it too, someday.
After she finished her late lunch, Mizu walked back to her hotel to catch some sleep. She was going to embark on an adventure far off into the wilderness of Africa and she couldn’t wait…On her way, she removed the tissue paper from her satchel and looked at the gypsophila. It seemed as alive as when it was on the tree, as alive as it was two centuries ago…