Geoparks Africa
World Heritage Sites

The Pillar of Vasco Da Gama, Malindi Town, India and the Mijikenda History

It is still not known why Kenya has not considered registering the Vasco Da Gama pillar of Malindi among the World Heritage potential Sites’

The Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi, Kenya, symbolises many things to different audience.

The coastal people, the Mijikenda, consider it a symbol of a curse that has brought poverty and exploitation.

But for the Christians, the pillar represents spiritual inspiration.

Others see da Gama as a pioneer – the father of globalisation – and the pillar as a tourist attraction.

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in the harbour of Mombasa on 7 April 1498, on his way to India.

The Arabs in Mombasa were not friendly to him, even attempting to sink his ship. The hostility prompted Gama to sail to the north. He arrived in Malindi on 14 April 1498.

The Sheikh of Malindi, whose name is not mentioned in the history books, was a rival to the Sheikh of Mombasa.

He welcomed da Gama, giving him fresh water and food.

Da Gama became close to the Sheikh. The relationship grew stronger, to the extent that the Sheikh gave da Gama a pilot sailor, Ibn Majid, to guide him to India, when he departed a few weeks later.

On his return from India the following year – 1499 – da Gama built the pillar.

From India with Love

The pillar, known as Vasco da Gama’s Cross, or the Padrao, consists of a cross and the Portuguese coat of arms.

It was first built next to the Malindi Sheikh’s Palace.

However, Muslim residents felt that the cross on top of it represented Christian domination in a Muslim territory. They destroyed it.

But da Gama explained to the Sheikh that the pillar marked his successful discovery of the sea route to India.

It also gives sailing directions – India is to the east, and Malindi to the west of the pillar.

The Sheikh allowed da Gama to set up the pillar further away from his palace.

Some years later, in 1512, it was rebuilt at the seafront. By this stage, the political realities had changed.

The Portuguese had made Malindi their northern headquarters.

Today, the pillar is visible from far away in the high sea.

It serves as a sailing control tower, even without any light on it.

It is believed to be one of the oldest European monuments in Africa – older than the famous Portuguese monument Fort Jesus, built in Mombasa between 1593 and 1596 to protect the port from outside invaders.

“Gama’s pillar is one of the attractions of the global history in Kenya,” says tour guide Jacob Owino.

“Local and foreign tourists, researchers, teachers and students from around the world, including Kenyans, visit the site every year.”

Owino feels that the monument keeps Kenya on the world map as a tourist destination.

However, today the monument is facing threats from the rising sea level – a product of climate change. “The rock on which the pillar stands has huge cracks due to beating and erosion of the sea waves,” says Caesar Bita, the curator of the Malindi Museum.

“The metal beams of the concrete basement have rusted and cracked too.” According to Bita, unless something is done, the pillar may soon collapse into the Indian Ocean.

The Mijikenda are believed to be the first people to have occupied coastal Kenya in the early centuries.

They are Bantus who came originally from southern Somalia.

Mijikenda is a Kiswahili word, meaning “nine homes”.

The Nine Tribes

The tribe comprises nine sub-tribes – the Giriama, Digo, Rabai, Chonyi, Jibana, Duruma, Kauma, Ribe and Kambe. The Giriama and Digo are the largest sub-tribes.

The Mijikenda – who occupy several counties along Kenya’s coast – have been marginalised for centuries. Today, the community is largely poor and landless.

Many are illiterate, which makes it difficult to find work.

“We are poor and have lived in mud huts with palm-thatch roofs for centuries, and yet the Europeans live in stone houses,” Hassan Juma, a resident of Malindi, lamented.

“They are our masters, and we are the servants. They use our daughters as supplements of their leisure.”

Government statistics indicate that 58.4 per cent of the population in Kilifi County lives below the poverty line, surviving on less than USD 1.25 per day.

Companies that operate in Kenya’s coastal areas tend to get most of their skilled staff from other parts of the country, while the majority of the Mijikenda are employed as unskilled labour.

“This pillar is a symbol of exploitation, it is a curse for us as we are not benefiting out of it. Our misery began within the coming of foreigners into our land,” says Chengo Chanzu, a Mijikenda elder. He argues that the pillar and all the historic attractions in Malindi are of no benefit to the Mijikenda people.

“We are poor, marginalised and landless. All that is here belongs to the same Europeans who put up the pillar,” he says.

The Mijikenda

Most of the Mijikenda are squatters, living in plots of land owned by absentee Arab landlords.

So how did the Mijikenda lose their ancestral land? Traditionally, African indigenous people owned land collectively, not as individuals.

This practice of communal land ownership can still be seen in some parts of Kenya today, especially in pastoralist communities, such as the Maasai, Turkana, Samburu and Pokot.

Kenya’s history has been one of successive colonisations.

A shift towards land tenure ownership was introduced in the 15th century, during the Portuguese occupation.

The Omani Arabs kicked out the Portuguese in the 19th century. Oman’s Sultan Said Seyyid moved his headquarters from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1856, and he became the ruler of the East African coast.

It was around this time that the Sultan granted freehold titles of land to Arabs, leaving out the indigenous African population.

Vast swathes of land were bought up by the sultan, his associates and other wealthy Arabs. Their descendants still own the land, making them today’s absentee landlords.

After Kenya’s independence from British rule in 1963, influential politicians grabbed much of the prime land in the coastal areas of Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale and Taita Taveta.

Subsequent Kenyan governments never addressed the coastal land injustices. Poverty, illiteracy and landlessness continued for the Mijikenda people.

About 80 per cent of Africans in the coast are technically squatters. All the land is still owned by Arabs, Europeans, Asians – or by politically well connected Kenyans, mostly from up-country.

The land issue and long-term marginalisation of the Mijikenda turned political.

Politics of the soil

Over the years, they lost hope of any meaningful change of land policy. This led to the formation of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) in 1999.

The MRC was formed as a political organisation that intended to fight for the coastal region’s secession from Kenya.

The movement embarked on the recruitment of young people to fight for coastal liberation. Their slogan was “Pwani si Kenya”, meaning “the coastal region is not part of Kenya”.

The MRC highlighted the fact that the coastal strip was still technically under the rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the prime minister Jomo Kenyatta leased the strip for 50 years from the sultan.

The MRC argued that the lease was due to expire in 2013 and the strip should be returned to the coastal people.

They turned violent in their struggle for independence, attacking non-coastal people and other targets with machetes and guns.

The attackers, mostly young people, wore black robes adorned with a star and crescent moon. The oath that they took included witchcraft practices to protect them from police bullets.

The MRC’s activities caused great insecurity along the coast.

Several hotels were closed, and thousands of workers lost jobs as tourism declined. Foreign embassies in Kenya issued advisory notices for their citizens to avoid visiting certain parts in the coast.

The government began police operations arresting the MRC members, and in 2010 the organisation was declared a criminal gang.

During the operations, numerous members were arrested and tortured. Some disappeared. Sensing danger from the security operations against it, the organisation changed its tactics – deciding to use legal means to fight the ban that declared it a criminal gang. Since then, the MRC’s profile has dropped, with no more violence or even public statements.

But talk of secession has not entirely disappeared. In the run-up to the 2017 general elections, two governors – Hassan Joho of Mombasa and Amason King of Kilifi – publicly declared that they would use diplomatic, legal and other means to ensure the coastal region secedes from Kenya.

The election passed and the debate cooled down.

There has been little talk about secession since.

Malindi

Malindi is a cosmopolitan town that is home to Africans, Europeans, Arabs and Asians.

The Arabs, Italians and Indians control nearly every aspect of the economy in the town.

The Italians, who make up about 80 per cent of the Europeans in Malindi, are believed to own over 50 hotels, cottages and villas, although no official statistics were available to confirm this. Malindi’s current mix reflects the comings and goings of its history.

As well as Vasco da Gama’s pillar, there is a Portuguese Chapel built before St Francis Xavier visited Malindi in 1542.

Some historians believe it was built at the same time as the pillar, in 1499.

In the chapel’s compound are 36 graves of sailors and other prominent Malindi pioneers, mostly Portuguese and British colonialists.

The town’s two pillar tombs, which sit near the Arab Market, are another beautiful attraction. Built in the 15th century, the two pillars are decorated with Chinese porcelain.

The Malindi District Officer’s house, completed in 1890, exemplifies British architecture of the era.

The Imperial British East Africa Company built the house for the first Malindi District Officer, Bell-Smith.

“We preserved this global historical heritage for centuries, though living in extreme poverty,” says Mathew Karisa, a local businessman. “The Europeans come here to enjoy our resources in front of us, in exchange for nothing.”

Amongst these remnants of colonisation remain sacred places for the indigenous residents.

The Kaya Shrines are sacred places in the forests for the Mijikenda. This is where they practise their rituals – prayers, sacrifices and burials. The Mijikenda believe that the spirits of their ancestors live in the shrines.

The issue of land along the coast is a political time bomb yet to explode. Unless a long-term solution is found, the Mijikenda will be tenants in their own land for ever.