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The Gem That’s Mama Ngina Drive

Visitors enjoy an afternoon breeze at the Mama Ngina Drive Park in Mombasa
Visitors enjoy an afternoon breeze at the Mama Ngina Drive Park in Mombasa. NMG PHOTO 

On a Saturday afternoon, tens of cars are packed in a recreational park along Mama Ngina Drive in Mombasa. There are three or four occupants in each car whiling away time. By 6pm, the park is full with people; locals and tourists. To get a plastic chair, one pays Sh50 but most people are not bothered about sitting. They buy a packet of cassava crisps from nearby kiosks, sprinkled with red chilli and lemon, or coconut juice (madafu), khat for those who chew it, liquor, or shisha in the days before the ban.

They then lie on the grass or pull out a chair from a car boot or jerk their car seats so that they are comfortable enough to start watching ships for up to 12 hours.

For years now, many people have been going to Mama Ngina Drive to 'cool off' from life's challenges as they watch the ships sail out to and from Kilindini Harbour. It is a lazy pastime, perhaps, but for people in Coast, it is helps them ease stress and gives them the thrill of watching a ship so minute in the endless horizon to when it reaches near and becomes a massive thing that is sometimes the size of three football fields in length.

Time flies when you are at Mama Ngina Drive. It is a beautiful place. It is the idle walks on the long stretch of the street that borders the sea, lazy hours spent under the sun as the breeze brings the relaxing smell of the sea that draws people to this place. But whereas idling or basically doing nothing is seen as shameful, I never hesitate to indulge in it. I have spent a few days and nights frittering away time watching the ships. It is relaxing and just like everyone else, hours pass while I sit on that plastic chair.

Mohamed Fundi, one of the people who loves coming to Mama Ngina Drive says it is where his dream of becoming a seaman began. He was inspired by watching the ships sail along the channel that the recreational park overlooks.

“Everyone I know comes here. Before I joined the maritime industry, I used to come here. Now, I feel inspired and motivated by simply watching them approaching. It gives me a picture of what I am going to be doing in future. I see the ships and ask myself? Is it possible for me to anchor that ship,” he says.

He adds that this pastime is not by an chance a form of idling.

Fried cassava traders at the Mama Ngina Drive Park in Mombasa

Fried cassava traders at the Mama Ngina Drive Park in Mombasa. NMG PHOTO

“We are not idlers. We come here when we have had a hectic day to just relax, then we go home feeling better,” says Mr Mohamed.

Massage is a big part of the pastime. Mobile masseurs, pedicurists, manicurists offer dry massages and make nails just where someone is seated. Edwin Nyairoh, a masseurs has been earning from the recreational park on Mama Ngina Drive for 11 years now. “I do massage on the shoulders and hands and also nails application. You just sit on your chair, I do the massage as you watch the ocean,” he says.

Over the years, he has seen many repeat customers and some even stay overnight at the park. He charges Sh500 for pedicure, which is basically the price in most salons while a massage session starts from Sh500 for 15 minutes. “Some people stay up to even morning hours especially those chewing miraa {khat},” Mr Nyairoh says.

At the park, there are also traders selling sea shells. Florence Chebet, a curio seller has been selling her wares for 10 years and on a good day she makes about Sh1,000.

“Some people come to see passengers and vehicles boarding and disembarking from the ferry. It is also a nice resting place especially because there is no entrance fees,” she says.

Other people sit on the tall coral reefs, others stand on the oceanfront as the ships draw closer. Occasionally you may also spot children on a horse back or a camel.

To Carsten Atogo, another resident who frequents Mama Ngina Drive, the big ships and the ocean are a thrill. He says he cannot get over them. On weekends, he has to be early, to get a parking space.

“I have been here for an hour now. I come and sit in my car and listen to music. I will stay here till 6pm or 7pm,” he said during an interview at 4pm.

A recent research shows that living near the sea significantly reduces depression in people. The breeze also improves sleep and the sounds of the waves can be very soothing to the brain. Mr Atogo, who knows little about the research, says he is already addicted to sea watching.

“It is even better that going to a club. People hear of Mama Ngina Drive and they think it is a boring place. Then they come and get addicted. Some stay here up to 4am every weekend,” he says.

Unlike other Kenyan public places which are insecure especially at night, Mr Atogo says he has never heard of any incident in the well-lit park.

“It is safe. The hawkers are not very aggressive and you can come with your own food,” he says.

Fried cassava traders at the Mama Ngina Drive Park in Mombasa

Fried cassava traders at the Mama Ngina Drive Park in Mombasa. NMG PHOTO

Benard Mutua, who lives in Nairobi and had visited the park during the December holidays, said he could sit there for even six to seven hours, enjoying the relaxing view and peace rarely found in Nairobi.

Sh460 million

For years, this street which also has the famous Florida Nightclub & Casino has not been really subjected to a formal set of rules.

However, now it is set to be upgraded for Sh460 million; adding an amphitheatre, a concept similar to the one in Stone Town, Zanzibar where iconic Taarab singer Fatuma binti Baraka, also known as Bi Kidude drew huge crowds before she died.

After the upgrade, tourists who love Swahili culture will have an opportunity to tour the cultural centre to be built within the park. There will also be a pigeon coops, another tourist attraction.

“It is a good project. We need organisation. It will attract more people but rules have to be reinforced and Kenyans must take care of the park,” says Mr Mohamed, the seaman.

The upgrade dubbed ‘Mombasa Waterfront Project’ is expected to transform Mama Ngina Drive into a recreational park that will have two gateways, paved pathways, lush gardens and restaurants that will edge out the kiosks.

To some investors and foodies, it maybe an opportunity to turn Mombasa into a street food city, where some of the best Swahili snacks and meals will be sold on Mama Ngina Drive.

Innocent Mugabe, the Mombasa tourism chief officer said 300 traders will be allowed to operate at the park upon completion.

“This area was an early settlement site and a battleground during the Arab-Portuguese wars. It has a rich history. In fact, the baobab trees are grave markers. The upgrade will woo more tourists,” he said.

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