Mombasa skyline at dusk. Left: a glittering new skyscraper. Right: A comparatively old minaret from one of Mombasa’s many centers of worship.

The Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Understandably so – in the past year, it has been the site of several acts of terrorism linked to al-Shabab, and the US Embassy recently issued a evacuation order for all non-essential personnel (including American tourists). At this time, our handful of volunteers living in Mombasa and its suburbs have been withdrawn, and travel to Mombasa is limited to necessary pass-through transit or medical emergencies.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this breaks my heart.

I understand their reasoning, but I am loathe for “Mombasa” to enter the general American (non-traveler) lexicon inextricably linked to “violence” or “terrorists.”

The intricately carved arching doorways are a staple of antique Muslim building facades up and down Africa’s East Coast.

Don’t misread me: Mombasa, like virtually any large city in the developing world, is not a town to be taken lightly. It struggles with poverty and sanitation issues, some crime (more in terms of systemic corruption than petty violence, but the latter is there, too), and all the chaos that generally accompanies a city being a major world trading port. However. I realize this may be a tall order, but if you can look past the major dangers like grenade attacks and minor inconveniences like traffic jams and a constant olfactory undertone of hot garbage (don’t worry, you get used to it quickly), you will find something incredibly beautiful.

This is a city that has kept its dignity through numerous periods of domestic and foreign rule, to this day possessing a (controversially) independent spirit. Though a majority Muslim city, it is home to numerous cultures and ethnicities living and working together. Mosques and Hindu temples share narrow streets, each lending its own decorative flair to the city. You can be in an electronic megamart one minute, step outside, walk a few meters, and dive into a spice market centuries old. Top 40 Hits blast from innumerable matatus, competing for space in the soundscape with dozens of mosques echoing out the call to prayer, which serves as punctuation for life’s daily rhythms.

A cart selling
madafu, or unripened coconut.

Step 1: Lop the top of the coconut off with a machete. Step 2: Insert straw. Step 3: Enjoy a naturally refreshing and nutritious treat that was cool here literally DECADES before it became a trendy hipster drink in the US.

Graffiti from the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), an illegal political organization that seeks to address longstanding financial and social grievances against the centralized government by advocating total secession and self rule. Their rallying cry, “Pwani Si Kenya” (“Coast is not Kenya”), can be found painted on an ever-increasing number of government buildings.

A Somali shopkeeper sits amongst her wares – dresses, headscarves, and fabrics in every imaginable hue – in the Old Town section of Mombasa.

Forget the hyper-stylized curio boutiques and “Masaai Markets” of the well-trod tourist paths. You will find no better shopping anywhere than in the shaded, narrow (and inexplicably, perpetually wet) labyrinth of alleys and stalls in deepest heart of the Old City. Then all of a sudden, you emerge into blinding sunlight, and find yourself facing Fort Jesus.

Interior: Fort Jesus

Paintings lined up along an elevated walkway in Fort Jesus.

Gateway to the indoor vegetable/spice market between Biashara Street and Old Town.

Inside the vegetable/spice market.

A shopkeeper explains the uses of different spices, from saffron and nutmeg to tamarind and crushed baobob seeds.

Damascus Shwarma – or “Shwarma Truck” to PCVs – is where the magic happens. “Magic” is not an exaggeration. Ask anyone.

Shwarma dinner: before.

Shwarma dinner: after.

I am sad that on my farewell tour of Kenya, making my way to Nairobi, I had through Mombasa, hurriedly, with my head down; a single night followed by an early-morning departure. I will be back. I don’t know when, but I am drawn to this place. Asante sana Mombasa, Mombasa moyangu.

Street stall vendors closing up shop in the early evening.