The Blog

Old Endings, New Beginnings

If Nairobi had charmed me despite itself, Mombasa, an historic island trading port, had initially done the opposite. It wasn't until a second visit in 2007 that I began to see it as something other than an old, faded, dilapidated city in need of repair.

The deep blue of the ocean calls to me daily. Today, the normally hot and humid air is carrying a cool sea breeze into the house, slamming doors and cancelling out the need for a fan. In the distance is the faint sound of waves crashing against the reef while the water's edge is still and tranquil. One day I, too, might feel still and tranquil.

We left Kisumu in the middle of the night, driving a car we'd have to give back that was packed full of all our minimal possessions and a dog that, fortunately, travels well. Our own, vaguely comical Great Escape.

I felt then, and for a long time afterwards, a searing rage at what the company he worked for had done, to R and to others, and at the way it had spilled over and seeped into every part of our lives. That feeling passed but an unease settled over me that has still not entirely gone away.

We decided to set-up our own company and thought about moving to Nairobi. I have always liked Nairobi. It is a skyscraper city, the second home of the United Nations, notably cosmopolitan and close to nature with the nearby Ngong Hills Forest Reserve, on the eastern slopes of which lies the grave of Denys Finch Hatton. It was in these foothills that Karen Blixen had her farm. Nairobi National Park, meanwhile, remains the only game park in the world next to a capital city.

It doesn't take long, though, for its frantic pace to cloud my mind. In R's experience, Nairobi is purely a place of congestion and stress. It is the fourth most congested city in the world. Traffic jams here can easily turn a one journey into a five hour nightmare. It was built for a population of 350,000 people which today stands at over 4.5 million. Its sky-high rental prices are also not so appealing. Then there is the threat of crime which plagues some neighbourhoods. In the end, we couldn't think of a good enough reason to live there.

Ours was an import and trading company and we would be able to set-up and run it from almost anywhere in Kenya.

R woke-up one morning and said, 'You know, with this new company, we wouldn't have to live in Nairobi. We could live in Mombasa.'

'I know. I thought that yesterday.'

'Of course you did,' he said, 'you're always ahead of me!'

Our move to the coast started with a 72 hour round-trip and fact-finding mission to Mombasa. I had been on a charity visit near Mt Kenya where I had spent half the week arranging house viewings and negotiating with estate agents before flying back to Kisumu. We drove to Mombasa the next day without stopping.

If Nairobi had charmed me despite itself, Mombasa, an historic island trading port, had initially done the opposite. It wasn't until a second visit in 2007 that I began to see it as something other than an old, faded, dilapidated city in need of repair. It was blisteringly hot, tuk-tuks seemed to be everywhere and there was more than an element of chaos.

Mombasa has a rich and varied past. It was ruled and fought over from 900AD to the late 19th Century, when it was the capital of the British Protectorate of East Africa, and became a key port in the slave, ivory and spice trades. Mombasa is a cultural melting pot but with an intrinsic, undeniable Swahili culture.

Our house hunt was focused on the self-contained suburb of Nyali, off the island, on Mombasa's north coast and a place neither of us had spent any time in. We had one day to find somewhere.

The hunt did not start well. Estate Agent No. 1 insisted on taking us to properties we hadn't asked to see that were over budget and unsuitable in a variety of other ways. Most were ostentatious mansions that even a small army would have rattled around and got lost in. One that might have been more promising stood on the banks of Tudor Creek looking out at Fort Jesus, built by order of King Phillip I of Portugal (also known as King Phillip II of Spain, his other kingdom) in 1591 to guard the Old Port of Mombasa, but we couldn't see the inside as Estate Agent No 1 didn't have the keys.

Instead, we viewed a property with fluorescent green and purple walls that gave R a strange glow when I looked at him.

'When will you take us to see the properties I emailed you about?' I asked.

'Oh, we will see these ones first,' said Estate Agent No. 1.

'But we don't want to see these ones,' I said.

Estate Agent No. 1, sitting in the back, did not reply.

And so we went on a two hour long Merry-Go-Round of houses we were never going to live in, made worse by Estate Agent No. 1 having a sense of direction to rival mine.

'Turn right here,' he informed R.

'Ok,' said R, turning the wheel.

'No, right!'

'I am turning right.'

'No, no, right! You must turn right!'

'Do you mean left?!' asked R.

'That way,' said Estate No. 1, pointing left.

We never did get to see the ones we'd wanted to and suspected they probably didn't exist.

Pressure was mounting. We thought we had one more month left in the house in Kisumu, which was short enough with nowhere to go unless we imposed on friends. When plans around us began to change by the day and then by the hour, we were glad we had found somewhere.

The second to last property we saw had a view of the ocean. The tide was slowly retreating to reveal the soft seabed below. To the left, was a long, four kilometre stretch of white sand that ran all the way up the beach, past an array of rocks, hotels, restaurants, camels and fishermen. We knew we would take it, though this wasn't the only thing that swayed us. It had room for R's girls, which has been important to us in every place we have lived in, for when they came to stay.

It was here, in this house, that we lived beside the baobab trees.