Blog Post

A Trek to Kilwa Kisiwani, Part II

The island of Kilwa Kisiwani sits just off the coast of Kilwa Misoko, surrounded by deep blue water and verdant mangroves hovering over white sand that blankets a gently rising coast. Baobabs stand sentry over the island, bulbous masters of a sun-drenched domain. The island of Kilwa Kisiwani has been inhabited since the 9th Century. Shirazi lore tells of Ali ibn Al-Hasan, a Persian ruler who sailed to the island in the late 10th Century and bought the island from the Wa-Muli tribe for copious amounts of cloth. Other records place the arrival of Kilwa's first Sultanate—a group of Islamic refugees—around 1050, as the island was gaining regional prominence. Gold, ivory, rhinoceros horn, cotton, beads, cloth, slaves, and other goods all made their way through Kilwa's harbor, bringing with them prosperity for the inhabitants.

At the peak of the island's wealth in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Kilwa Kisiwani was among the wealthiest of the Swahili city-states, controlling the lucrative sea trade routes. . Drawn by the wealth and strategic position of the tiny island, Portugal invaded and maintained control until 1512, when it was abandoned for more lucrative positions along the coast. Following European rule, the island was left in disarray, and was never able to re-establish prominence as it competed with other major ports in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Lamu, and Mombasa, among others. Even as Omani traders utilized Kilwa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, shepherding slaves and goods along the East African coast, the island and its inhabitants had faded into relative obscurity. Struck by cholera in the mid-19th century, poverty has gripped the island every since.

Our dhow, a wooden sailboat, drifts gently up to the island's jetty, allowing us to disembark and ascend stone steps to a dirt path circumnavigating the northwestern tip of the island. Exploring Kisiwani, one becomes keenly aware that the historic ruins are very much intertwined with the lives of the local inhabitants. Skinny trails snake through backyards, gardens, and tiny markets. School children ogle as we walk by, with only the most courageous greeting us with the endearingly misguided salutation, “Bye-bye.”

The tour leads us through the Malindi mosque and cemetery, fifteenth-century structures likely built by an important family on the island with roots in Kenya. Coral, often used as both the bricks and mortar of many of the ruins, was evident throughout the island's ruins, lending fascinating intricacies to structures both large and small. Across a small harbor, the Gereza sits perched over the incoming tide, decimated by centuries of battle with unrelenting waves. Rebuilt by Omanis in the eighteenth century, the fort's mangrove-starved beach can do little to stop erosion from nibbling away its grip on stability.

From the palaces of Makutani (meaning “the palace of the big walls”) and Husuni Kubwa to the delicate architecture of the Great Mosque and Small Domed Mosque, the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani detail a long and rich history. High-quality craftsmanship is evident throughout the structures, which used crushed coral from the surrounding water as mortar for large stone and coral blocks. Ornate carvings adorn doorways, speaking to the Islamic influences in Kilwa's history.

The island's ruins dot a sun-seared landscape. Trees offer some respite from the grueling heat, but many paths offer scant arboreal protection. Long, dry grass, brambles, and bushes encroach on the slim paths, nipping at heels while ants scurry about waiting to clamp their jaws on any dawdling limb. Along the dusty paths, atop moss-covered stone, and in the overgrown flora, the six-legged insects rule, expediting our journey by encouraging movement.

Indeed, Kilwa offers a fascinating experience well worth the journey, but comfort was often nowhere to be found.

WMF first became involved with Kilwa Kisiwani (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981) in 1996 when the site was named to the World Monuments Watch. In 2008, the site was again named to the Watch, and in 2009, work began on the Portugese Fort (Gereza). Conservation has focused on stabilizing the walls of the fort and preventing further collapse. As climate change has led to rising tides and the mangroves forests have been decimated by use in construction of homes and dhows, the Fort has grown increasingly threatened. WMF has assisted in training local craftspeople and is working on comprehensive conservation plans for the entire site as well as Songo Mnara Island, which sits just to the south.

Kilwa faces a number of conservation challenges. Foremost among them is preparing for the completion of the road extending south from Dar. While plans for fully paved passage by the end of 2011—the Tanzanian government claims—seems ambitions based on our travel experience, when transportation by land does become significantly easier, tourism is expected to increase, straining the resources of Kilwa Misoko and the infrastructure on Kisiwani. Protecting the ruins represents a major task for conservators, but finding ways to manage tourists, improve trails, rejuvenate the mangrove population, and develop a symbiotic relationship between the site and the local people will be critical to Kilwa's survival and were evident as we traversed the island.
The adventure south was an experience I'm happy to have had. The people we met (including those involved in a quinquennial ceremony to rid Kilwa Misoko of black magic) throughout the islands were warm and genuine. Exploring the ruins, wandering through town, lying on the beach, and sipping Safaris at our hotel made saying goodbye difficult—not in the least because we knew what the journey that lied ahead potentially had in store.

As for the (13-hour) bus ride back to Dar, I won't even get started…