Society

Shimo La Tewa got its name from the travails of slaves

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Summary

  • The Arab slave trade is said to have spanned the period between the 8th century to the 19th century when it was officially abolished by the British.
  • Historians have claimed that an estimated 8 million African slaves were shipped to foreign lands during this time.
  • The East African coastline was the staging ground for much of the slave trade activity.
  • Arab slave caravans colluded with their African counterparts to capture and drive slaves from the interior, bringing them to holding grounds, such as Shimoni, where those trying to escape were tortured or executed while others died being castrated.
  • Many of the slaves would also have been forced to carry ivory from the interior.

While I was mulling over the subject of this week’s article, I asked a friend of mine, whose origin is Malawi, whether he had been to school in Kenya. I knew his father was a professor at the University of Nairobi in 1976 while I was studying there. My friend answered in the affirmative and confirmed that he studied at Shimo La Tewa but was quick to add “the school, not the prison”! Shimo La Tewa Prison regularly submits a high number of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) candidates. I understood his point.

Shimo La Tewa Secondary School is situated in Shanzu, approximately 15 kms north of Mombasa. The name “Shimo La Tewa” literary translated means hole in the ground ,but on a closer analysis of its history the more appropriate English equivalent would be “hell hole”.

The Arab slave trade is said to have spanned the period between the 8th century to the 19th century when it was officially abolished by the British. Historians have claimed that an estimated 8 million African slaves were shipped to foreign lands during this time.

The East African coastline was the staging ground for much of the slave trade activity. Arab slave caravans colluded with their African counterparts to capture and drive slaves from the interior, bringing them to holding grounds, such as Shimoni, where those trying to escape were tortured or executed while others died being castrated. Many of the slaves would also have been forced to carry ivory from the interior.

The surviving slaves would then be transported to the main slave markets such as Mombasa, Bagamoyo, Kilwa, Pemba and Zanzibar from where they would be shipped overseas to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, India and China.

Around the 14th century, the Omani Arabs established a slave trade town at Mtwapa known as Jumba La Mtwana (mansion of the slaves).

Shimo La Tewa is just across the creek from Mtwapa and was used as a holding ground for slaves headed to Jumba La Mtwana.

The same human rights abuses were witnessed at Shimo La Tewa as in other holding grounds. Fortunately, Jumba La Mtwana was abandoned in the 15th century for some unclear reasons.

In more recent history, since the advent of Somali pirates along the East African coastline in 2009, Shimo La Tewa had become the favourite drop off point for pirates who were unlucky to be caught by sharp shipmasters.

By the mid-1920s a number of Arab schools existed in Mombasa, the earliest being the Allidina Visram School which was established in 1916. It will be recalled that schools were, by law, run along racial lines at the time.

Shimo La Tewa Secondary School was established in 1932 by the colonial government for Arab boys who successfully completed their primary education at Arab schools in Mombasa. The school had six dormitories with a capacity of 120 pupils. However, many Arab pupils were reluctant to enroll in the school because it was far from their parents in Mombasa and was surrounded by dense forest and wild animals.

In September 1939, the school was closed due to the outbreak of World War 11 and was taken over by the British Army as a war hospital. It remained in the hands of the army until 1947 when the politically leaning Coast African Association demanded that the school be re-opened as a secondary school for Africans since there was none at the coast province.

The colonial governor Sir Philip Mitchell, in yet another paternalistic gesture, approved the request and the school re-opened as the Coast African Secondary School.

The school reverted to its old name almost immediately due to its national appeal being one of only four schools namely, Alliance, Maseno and Mang’u to offer secondary education up to form four at the time. Notable alumni include Noah Katana Ngala, Karisa Maitha, General (Rtd) Joseph Kibwana, Chirau Mwakwere, Francis Kaparo and Shariff Nassir.