The first friend I ever made in Mombasa Primary school was this tiny girl called Salwa. Salwa was a Kenyan of Yemeni Arab descent; small, even smaller than me, and I am only a few inches taller than a midget. We were quite the pair, always together, always getting into trouble. She was a little lady, I was an unabashed tomboy, try as she might, she couldn’t get me to stop climbing everything and picking up everything. “Yuck! Betty!” was her constant scream at break-time. I loved the look on her face when I picked up millipedes, and also how she ran away laughing.
My first memory of Ramadan was when Salwa refused to eat my break with me. “I am on Saum.” My first lessons on Islam were taught to me by a very solemn Salwa. “Never ever put the Quran on the bottom, Betty, put it on top of your other books.” Up until that point, I did not realize that her hijab was part of her Islamic identity; I always thought that it was because her hair was so long so she had to cover it to protect it from getting dirty.
I grew up in Mombasa with Muslim friends, of all ethnicities and it never ever occurred to me that I was a “foreigner”. But I am Kikuyu, and my family had moved to Mombasa just before I was born, so we were indeed alien to the coast.
The issues of non-coastal people inhabiting the coastal region has progressively become a highly contentious matter; a situation so volatile that in 1992 there were the first attacks on “watu wa bara” by militants who wanted them to return up country.
This attitude is entirely contrary to the culture of the coastal people and Muslim communities; theirs is a non-resistant and welcoming approach to strangers and foreigners. For this turn of civility to occur, there were indeed historical injustices inflicted on the people of the coast.
When the missionaries first arrived at the port of Mombasa, they were met with non-resistance; it was the nature of the Africans and Muslims to be welcoming, to share what they had, and to ensure that the visitors were comfortable. The missionaries found that the most advanced settlements were among the Muslim communities; towns complete with sewerage, sanitation and water delivery systems and building made of stones with beautifully crafted wooden doors. Naturally, the missionaries would turn to the Waswahili people to serve them as clerks, because they were the ones who were literate. Indeed, the entire region of Mombasa and greater parts of the Coast were under the rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar - a government that based its rule on Islamic principles fully entrenched with education, financial systems and judiciary. The Wali were the administrators, and the Kadhi courts dispensed justice. The con was to trick the coastal people that they would retain that system.
This is indeed the story of Islam in all the colonies in Africa – that the Islamic systems were dismantled through cruel trickery and sometimes even violence from the colonialists.
As the missionaries advanced inwards, the Waswahili would establish “Majengo” settlements; miniature administrative towns that were complete with sanitation and ablution facilities. The Majengo settlements were found wherever the missionaries and later colonial administrators needed to set up office. The name “Wastaarabuni” came to imply a civilized people, as the Majengo were indeed the most civilized settlements to be found, complete with Wali and Kadhi court systems as was the norm with Islamic communities. With the proliferation of the Majengo settlements came the advancement of the Islamic faith among the ethnic communities living near those settlements. Islam spread as far north as Mandera and Wajir, and as far west as Mumias.
It became clear to the missionaries and early colonialists that the spread of Islam was entirely contrary to their own objectives and so certain decrees became part of their design to curb and control the Muslims. Because Islam was gaining dominance, the claim that Islamic education is illiteracy was a tactical development in an effort to formalize the colonial administration. Since that time, the absolute absence of Islamic education in Kenya’s educational system has been enforced. With the exception of Islamic Religious Education as a sole subject in classrooms, there is an absolute dearth of any sort of Islamic knowledge being passed on as far as government, jurisprudence, culture or economic systems are concerned.
On the whole, everything Islamic was dismantled even at the coast and especially in the constitution – there was an absolute disappearance of the Wali and the Kadhi courts were restricted to dealing with the Muslim communities’ family laws. In all this, the Christian Church was actively pushing for the exclusion of anything Islamic in nature including the Kadhi system, education, wali system of administration and economics. Indeed the church till today is influential in blocking Sharia system of banking, rendering a lot of people incapable of accessing credit.
A significant factor to disenfranchising Muslims in Kenya and especially at the coast was the fact that even in the Majengo settlements the colonial administration would refuse to give title to the Muslims. The same goes for the coastal people; they to this day hold no title to land that they have inhabited for centuries. This is a deliberate design to deny economic power or development and to keep the Muslim community totally marginalized.
Without title, one certainly could not lay claim to the very land their houses stood upon. Even after independence, as President Jomo Kenyatta redistributed titles to the indigenous people, the coastal people were not accorded titles. Instead, people from up country, “Watu wa Bara” were allowed to settle at the coast and later acquire title deeds even though they were not the original inhabitants. This is the grave crime that especially the Gikuyu people at the coast are guilty of.
This sort of economic injustice and unfair acquisition of land was epitomized by Coast Provincial commissioner, Eluid Mahihu, the very representation of the “Gikuyu” grabbing mentality; a man who was the living definition of a “foreigner” and who was both a corrupt person and also the face of the church. His was a double injustice – as he acquired property through grabbing of land, he hid himself as a “pious” elder of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. Indeed, over time, the P.C.E.A church has become predominantly Kikuyu and the activities of criminals among the congregation silently ignored.
The hypocritical actions of church leaders have directly contributed to over all tensions and mistrust between the coastal people and “Christians” from other parts of the country. Indeed, where as once, the coastal people could identify themselves separately as Muslim and non-Muslim, today they identify themselves as one community regardless of their faith because to date they remain squatters on their own land, impoverished and marginalized.
Without title one cannot borrow money, and certainly cannot develop anything on land that they do not “possess”. This is the essence of the poverty at the coast, the source of animosity among the coastals towards “foreigners”, whether white or African. From Vanga, near the border of Kenya and Tanzania to Kiunga at the border of Kenya and Somalia, the title deeds are owned by “foreigners”. Well. Not ALL titles. Just as in any civilization, among the people of the coast of Kenya, you will find the Collaborators, the Puppets, and of course, those closest to the centre of power. They too, acquired title.
The claim is that these absentee landlords are people from Saudi Arabia and Yemen; the truth is that these landlords comprise of Kenyan nationals who acquired title through corrupt and unjust means. So called absentee landlords are just a camouflage for a select few, foreigners from up-country and actual foreigners to acquire property at the coast and turn the coastal people into squatters in their own land.
To date, Muslims remain impoverished and excluded because of their faith for two reasons – their faith does not allow usury or transactions with interest and they do not own title to property.
It is within these circumstances that the Kenya government thus seeks to enact a “War on Terrorism” that is targeted at the Muslim community; where as a search for suspects of other crimes results in only those suspects being arrested and detained, Kenya’s counter- terrorism tactics involve raiding, arresting and detaining entire families, blatant criminal vandalism, plunder, rape and extra-judicial killings. In Kenya, ALL Muslims are terrorism suspects.
That this is going on within our borders, with the knowledge of our spiritual and political leaders is a testament to how deeply ingrain our collective hypocrisy and bigotry as a nation. WE are the terrorists!