“The Arabic inscriptions up there,” she says and points, “were believed to ward off evil spirits!” She further explains that the spikes on the fading gray (once black) Omani doors she stands in front of were not just for aesthetics but meant to deter a person from ramming through the door at the more than 400-year-old former military installation.
Fatma Twahir knows Fort Jesus better than almost anyone and as she walks the BDLife through one of the most significant buildings in Kenya’s history, she seems familiar with every nook and cranny in this ancient building which holds a torrid and bloody past.
Built by the Portuguese in the late 16th century, Fort Jesus has been the hot-point of many a battle, changing hands from its initial European owners to the Omanis and finally serving as a prison in colonial Kenya before its current status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mrs Twahir is a trained architect and is today the 10th of a celebrated line of Chief Curators at Fort Jesus, going back to the early 1960s.
According to the inscription at the entrance, her office lies on a former Portuguese and Omani gravesite.
Her present path, far from what she ever thought it would be, started with a thesis on Swahili Architecture, a project she carried out for her Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture at the National College of Arts in Pakistan.”
I got to interact with people within the National Museums of Kenya who gave me some insights, some directions on who to read and where to get information and where to look,” Mrs Twahir says of her beginnings to today being the gatekeeper at the second highest revenue earner for the National Museums of Kenya.
Impressed with her work and curiosity, the CEO at the time offered her a guaranteed position on his team. In the folly of youth, however, she wanted to go out and ‘conquer the world!’ before the conservation bug called her back.
“I went back to him and he asked, ‘Where have you been?’” Mrs Twahir chuckles at the memory. She quickly found herself at the Department of Sites and Monuments in Shimoni.
After a stint in Sweden for her Masters at the Royal Institute of Technology, Mrs Twahir came back to Kenya armed with more knowledge and also gravitating towards the environment, something she says wasn’t fashionable in Africa back then.
She was then put in charge of the Mama Ngina Heritage Site as Assistant Director before taking charge of the Mombasa Old Town Conservation Office.
“In 2017, I was asked to sit in as the Acting Principal Curator here,” Mrs Twahir says she found it a scary prospect. “I’m an architect. I’ve dealt with buildings. I deal with engineers. Here I am, being put in a place where I have to manage a staff of 50!”
She, however, took to it like a dhow to water.
Her work as the head of the museum at Fort Jesus involves not just seeing that the rich collection of artefacts is protected but also how to present these to the public, keeping in mind that the Fort is not just a museum but a monument as well. That involves the management of the structure.
The sea wall and other projects
Fort Jesus was curved out of the coral reef and as such has no foundation.
“During high tide, we’d find huge boulders that had fallen into the sea,” Mrs Twahir says.
There was a danger of the head of the Fort (which is designed akin to the human form) would erode into the sea and with it its rich history.
Her predecessor raised the flag on this danger and received funding to construct a sea wall which was actualised during Mrs Twahir’s tenure.
A beautiful seafront structure was erected to cushion the Fort from the waves of the Indian Ocean.
With partners’ backing, Mrs Twahir’s office has also done a facelift on a football pitch that sits outside the Fort. Where there was only sand and makeshift posts before, a layer of AstroTurf welcomes young members of the community who are sports-inclined.
“People were having tournaments there with only three corners of the pitch, with one goal and loose sand. During the Sea Wall Project, it was imperative to upgrade and spruce it up,” she says of the former eye sore of a football ground.
The authenticity of the Fort is however not an issue that can be compromised. All the works that take place on its façade and interior are strictly monitored.
Repairs are carried out with materials that maintain the ‘old’ look and feel. Mrs Twahir terms the Fort a living, breathing structure.
“We don’t tell the story. The story is told by the local community,” Mrs Twahir says of local involvement in Fort Jesus’ activities.
Her office registers and trains tour guides who in turn take visitors through the Fort and relay the over 400-year history of the magnificent structure.
Curio shops and food vendors are also strictly sourced from the community around Fort Jesus and Old Town.
Asked if Fort Jesus is able to pay for itself, Mrs Twahir answers in the affirmative. She adds, “The only issue is that we don’t have autonomy to exist on our own. We exist as an institution of the National Museums of Kenya.”
Their revenue is collated into a central kitty by the governing authority. She is, however, proud of the fact that her charge at the historical site has maintained the Fort’s earning power, proudly pointing out that they lie second in revenue collection.
At Sh1,200 for international guests and only Sh200 for Kenyans, a more than affordable rate, Fort Jesus continues to open its doors to visitors from far and wide into its welcoming bosom.
Under Mrs Twahir’s charge, the management at Fort Jesus hopes to keep innovating and changing with the times to keep the ancient structure relevant to this and future generations of visitors. This task and privilege she takes very seriously.