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Fort Jesus, standing testament to rich past of Kenya

By Otiato Opali | China Daily | Updated: 2022-12-31 09:55

Children play football beside the main passageway that leads out of Fort Jesus to the ocean. The way was used by the Portuguese to move supplies and goods from ships on the ocean into the fort.[Photo provided by Otiato Opali/China Daily]

Zheng He's voyages

Zheng made seven voyages to visit the city-states dotting the coast of East Africa between 1405 and 1433. Many porcelains and copper coins excavated at Swahili burial sites and ancient ruins along the East African coast have been attributed to his expeditions.

Among the Chinese porcelains displayed at the museum is a vase patterned with dragons chasing flaming pearls among cloud scrolls and pearl festoons. There is also a pair of small Chinese vases with floral panels in green, iron-red, yellow, manganese and a pale turquoise on a background of green tendrils with red chrysanthemums. Another small Chinese jar depicts a battle scene in iron-red, green, pink and manganese with a tarnished metallic border below the top and above the base and a varnish finish. In addition, the display also features a large Chinese plate with two dragons in gray panels surrounded by flowers and birds in turquoise, yellow, manganese and rose-pink enamel.

One famous find in Kenya, standing as a testament to early Chinese presence in East Africa, is a 600-year-old coin which is made of copper and silver and has a hole in the center so it could be placed on a string — a classic feature of old Chinese coins. The coin was issued by Emperor Yongle, who reigned between the years 1403 to 1424 and commissioned the Zheng He expeditions. It was found on Manda, an island on the Kenyan coast and is tangible evidence of Chinese exploration and trade in Africa nearly a century before the Portuguese reached this part of the world.

Tabitha Nakimera, a Ugandan national in Mombasa with her family for Christmas paid a visit to Fort Jesus and said that it was interesting to see how the building is a living testimony of the cultural interchange between Africans, Arabs, and Europeans.

"My children are so excited to visit the fort because by walking through the old halls and passageways, they feel like they are part of the history that existed in this place. In addition, the fort serves as a reminder of our shared history as East Africans because the British who last occupied the fort also colonized Uganda," Nakimera said.

Visitors to the fort have a chance to shop among the plentiful souvenir vendors in the area around Fort Jesus, one of the town's top tourist attractions. Traders in these shops offer high-quality handicrafts and African clothing, which visitors can take home as mementos.

Outside the fort visitors can also see a gun from the H. M. S Pegasus, a 2000-ton cruiser which was undergoing boiler repair in Zanzibar harbor in September 1914 when it was sunk by the German warship Konigsberg. The gun on display is one of eight which were salvaged from the ship and later mounted on wheels and used in coastal defense batteries in both Zanzibar and the city of Mombasa.

Despite having proven its longevity, surviving centuries of change, Juma said that the fort still requires preservation. National Museums of Kenya, the umbrella organization which manages the country's heritage institutions, is the main stakeholder in its conservation.

The tour guide added that long-term conservation and management issues facing Fort Jesus include the protection of the fort from urban encroachment, and controlling the erosion of the adjacent coastline.

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