Tarnished jewel of the Indian ocean.


The island of Mombasa, famous in history for over a thousand years, used to be a perfect little jewel on the east African coast of Kenya. When I was growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s, it had to be one of the prettiest places on earth, surrounded by azure seas and bedecked with regally swaying palms. I remember it as very clean -- the narrow, twisting streets of the Old Town were religiously swept of every speck of dust -- dawn and dusk of every day. The main road, Salim Road in those days, was a picture. Shopkeepers kept their show-windows sparkling, the tree-lined avenues glistened after their daily watering and anyone who threw litter on the streets was given a royal ear-bending by whatever locals were nearest.

The people were not rich but they were proud of their town.

I was in Mombasa about a month ago and could not believe what a cesspit it has become. The town is now rich, raking in money from tourism, from the harbour, from its position as the gateway to the rest of Kenya, Uganda, and even northern Tanzania. Large, and in many cases hideously ugly buildings have sprouted up. The wealthy have been feverishly constructing stylish bungalows surrounded by high walls. But the town stinks, literally.

The state of the roads should be a badge of shame to be hung around the necks of the civic authorities: mud-filled pot-holes, disintegrating tarmac, unkempt islands covered in sand and dust.

Go to the central market and the stench of rotting vegetables hits you like a blow. Along the sides of the streets, garbage has been piled up so high it falls over itself and spews out its rotten contents onto the street where it is crushed by the wheels of cars. Layers of rubbish now form the surface of some streets.

Salim Road, now renamed Digo Road is a rubbish tip. I saw rats scurrying about in the decomposing mess in broad daylight.

The civic malaise goes deeper. Water supply, for years now, has been limited to a few hours every day. You find people queueing up with jerrycans at every available borehole. Hygiene has gone out of the window. The further you move away from the town centre, the worse it gets.

Traffic lights do no work. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the driving. Matatus (cheap taxis) flit in and out of the traffic without bothering to signal or even to look if the way is clear. To attempt to cross the road at the few zebra crossings is to court an accident. There is a feeling of total chaos, disorder and disintegration --...

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