By Don Pablo
I have this thing where I try to acquire as much information as possible about a destination I’m traveling to. I’ll read up on the location, view images, Google Earth the place and what not to get a good idea of said destination before my arrival. While this may take away the element of surprise in stumbling upon a hidden gem, it’s always proved useful by letting me know the attractions I must see especially if the stay isn’t a long one.
So I was naturally excited to find out I’d be visiting Diani in March. Not only is the beach one of the best stretches of coastline in Kenya but Diani hosts one of the oldest structures in Eastern Africa; the Kongo mosque. Kongo mosque – a relic of the Kilwa Sultanate – dates back to sometime between the 13th and 15th century, a time when the East African coast was an important hub in the Indian Ocean trade.
The mosque is located on the Northern-most tip of Diani beach right next to the mouth of the Kongo River. I was lucky to meet a generous and informed caretaker who gave a good account of the mosque’s history. According to local tradition, the mosque was so named after one of the graves that dot the area was found to have the name ‘SADIKI KONGO’ inscribed on its headstone. The Kongo name was subsequently lent to the nearby river and the surrounding area.
The structure is made of coral rock and is quite similar to the Great Mosque of Kilwa that stands as one of the most elaborate structures from the Kilwa Sultanate. The Kilwa Sultanate was a collection of trade settlements and city states that came together under the rule of Persian (and later Arab) descendants in collaboration with local representatives from around the 10th to the 15th century. The East African coast became a melting pot of all these cultures and eventually, the Swahili language and culture came into being. At its height, the Sultanate covered the entire Swahili coast from Lamu in the North to the Mozambican coast in the South and going a few kilometers inland.
The city states operated as entreports where gold, ivory and animal products from the interior were exchanged for manufactured goods, clothes, porcelain and beads from Asia. In time, the city states grew rich as they traded with merchants from as far away as Arabia and Asia. Whereas merchant ships would frequent the East African coast, Kilwa merchants were also known to sail with their goods to India and Arabia using the monsoon winds. Coins from the Kilwa sultanate dating back to the 12th century have been found in islands off Australia Northern coast raising questions as to whether the Kilwa explorers/merchants got to the land down under a whole six centuries before the white man. The wealth, opulence and relatively advanced lifestyle of the Swahili coast can be seen from the ruins found in this area from Gedi in the present day Kenya to the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara in Tanzania.
As with every thriving empire, a fall is never too far away. Internal succession squabbles and rivalries resulted in discontent and increased autonomy of the city states. The arrival of the Portuguese only exacerbated matters further. The Europeans were often violent and placed restrictions on trade as they attempted to monopolize the trading routes. The violence and decline in trade led to some settlements being abandoned and eventually, the whole Indian Ocean trade virtually collapsed. The city states eventually became protectorates of the Sultan of Oman up until the arrival of the British in the 19th century.
The abandoned settlements became the ruins that we see today and Kongo’s fate wasn’t much different. The mosque became an abode for bats and other animals before it was ‘re-discovered’ years later and cleared to be used as a place of worship once again. Inside the mosque stand three central pillars that prop up the structure. The interior has been renovated using modern building materials like cement and paint. The green and white layer of paint gives a veneer of modernity to an otherwise dated building.
In recent years, an extension has been added to the Eastern wing of the mosque to meet increased demand for prayer space by worshipers. The caretaker mentioned that the mosque takes up to 300 worshipers during the Friday prayers. On the Southern side is the ladies’ section. The mosque is surrounded by massive baobab trees some of which are said to be as old as the mosque itself.
The surrounding beach hosts tourists, swimmers, surfers as well as beach volleyball training sessions. The beach was a source of controversy for a while as its ownership was claimed by individuals including the former President Daniel Arap Moi. The title to the land was however given to the mosque in 2012 by the then Lands Minister, James Orengo. I found it quite bizarre that the National Museums of Kenya hadn’t made an effort to recognize and market the area as a tourist destination but that’s a story for another day.
The stunning beauty of the whole Kongo area was almost as amazing as the structure itself. The clean white beaches and the azure water was a sight to behold. It got better as the sun set giving the mouth of the river a golden glow. The beauty of the whole place can best be appreciated from a vantage point as shown in the above image.
As the sun set, I left the area having thoroughly enjoyed my visit to a monument which stands to remind us of an era whose sun set a long time ago. Tembea Kenya and appreciate our history, geography and the culture of our people.