Historic Sites at the Coast

Historic Sites in Kwale County

At the moment, the beautiful beach at Diani has been the most successful at attracting travellers to Kwale, yet, there’s much more to the county than the miles of perfect beach. It’s awash with a collection of historic sites, found mainly along the coast, many of them on private lands; consisted of ancient mosques, ruins, palaces, houses, walls with gates and tombs. Owing to their isolation and overgrown vegetation, some of the ruins are complicated to locate.

Map of Historic Site along Kwale's Coastline.  Image Courtesy
Map of Historic Sites along Kwale’s Coastline. Image Courtesy

Acknowledgement: This list of Historic Sites at the Coast Region of Kenya contains excerpts from “The Monumental Architecture and Archaeology of Central and Southern Coast” – Thomas H. Wilson

1. Vumba Kuu

The historic old site of Vumba Kuu is located near the Kenya-Tanzania border (Lunga-Lunga) nearby the Mchamalale (or Mchongo) Stream. The site itself is densely overgrown, although much of the area around is under cultivation. An erosion channel and tidal flats divide the site into two parts: a western section, a small part of which is in Tanzania, and a smaller eastern area where a mosque is located. Vumba Kuu, which literally means the capital of Vumba, dates to the 15th Century coinciding with the arrival of the Bani Nabhani from Pate and the rise of the Omani (Arab) Rule. “It is likely that the historic date from Pate was incorporated into the history of Vumba Kuu. Seven sultans followed the first man enthroned at Vumba Kuu, allegedly in 1201+, before the reign of a Kwana Chambi chardi Ivoo, whose presence seems to be confirmed about 1630 – 80’s.” The area suggested by the curve of the town wall might reach seven acres, but if the eastern side is included the total area might double that. House remains could not be seen” – Thomas H. Wilson. All that remains of the mosque are the broken walls of its southeastern section, including: a south wall, ruined to a low height; a cistern to the east of the musalla, although, no trace of an anteroom can be seen; a well south of the rear wall, with an adjacent cistern, smaller than the other. Traditionally Vumba Kuu was said to have been founded in 1201+, as the date for the arrival of the Nabhani at Pate, and for the founding of Tumbatu.

2. The Ruins at Vanga

18 kms south of Lunga Lunga Town sits Vanga, a small fishing-town of mostly mud and thatch houses arranged along a neat series of north-south streets. The town is at the water’s edge, with access to the sea through a broad channel that is flanked by mangroves. Vanga is the most southerly settlement in Kenya and contrary to expectation, this ways-out hamlets is a treasure trove of historical ruins. Small tombs are scattered throughout Vanga, one of these having a small pillar about 2 ms high, with the base of a 19th century European ceramic mug on top. According to a report by National Museums of Kenya “Vanga was only a small fishing village when Diwan Sheikh moved there from Wasini about 1821.” Some of the other elaborate ruins include those left over from the British epoch.

Old Ruins at Vanga. Image Courtesy of Mercy Juma
Old Ruins at Vanga. Image Courtesy of Mercy Juma

3. Kagugu

This is a site out in the mangroves located a few minutes walk out of Vanga. There, on a grassy rise above sea level, a little island about 200 metres long by about 100 metres wide, are found an isolated cistern and, somewhat farther north, a ruined mosque. At the cistern is a collection of umpteen 19th century ceramics. The mosque was at the north end of the grassy high ground, but the north end of the structure has been carried away by tidal action. “The hidden nature of this site suggests ‘Kagugu’ is located where it is for defensive reasons”.

4. Wasini Island

The 21 km2 – 7 kms long and 3 kms wide – Wasini Island orientated in an east-west strike sits just 900 ms south the Shimoni Penninsula. Shimoni boatyard is traditionally the jump-off to the island. The little town of Wasini located on the northwestern side of the island is its main landing. The Island has a population of about 4,000 of mainly three fishing communities – Wadigo, Washirazi and Wavumba – who coexists in this dreamy place where life has changed very little in the past decades. At Wasini Island there are five mosques, three of which are still in use, associated tombs and the ruins of a few stone houses. Prom west to east the mosques: Msikiti wa Mira Mwiyuni, Msikiti Mdogo, Msikiti wa Ijumaa, Msikiti wa Kale and Msikiti wa Mgodo. The western mosque, Msikiti wa Mira Mwiyuni, was said to have been built by one Mkulu wa Mwenyi Mkuu of the al-Ba Urii family; he is said to have come from Pate. At the southwest corner of the mosque are six tombs, said to be those of Mkulu wa Mwenyi Mkuu and his kin.

The eastern mosque, Ksikiti wa Kgodo, like Ksikiti wa Kira Mwiyuni, is said to have been built by Mkulu wa Mwenyi Mkuu. The other unused mosque at Wasini, Msikiti wa Kale, is now in ruins. It’s thought to have been built by the agent of Ahmed bin Muhammad, the Mazrui governor of Mombasa. Ksikiti wa Ijumaa was built by Diwan Hasan, the son of Diwan Ruga, and completed in 1161 or 1162. Near the seafront is the grave of Iaarus, who is reported to have been considered a wizard and at whose grave the Digo were said to pray for rain. He is remembered today as a religious man, and a leper, to whom people, mostly sailors, would go to ask him to pray for them or their problems. The grave has short pillars on the east and west ends, with central wall monuments on the side walls and step ends at the corners with conical finials on top on the east end and cylindrical finials on the west. Its facades are decorated with blue and white bowls and plates. There is a tombstone at the grave that’s dated 1279.

Arab graves from over 200 hundred years ago. Image Courtesy of Ministry2Kenya

Behind Msikiti wa Ijumaa are 26 tombs. 13 are arranged in three groups and a single tomb is at the southeast corner of the mosque. 5 tombs, or rather four tombs and a grave, are within a high-walled compound with a southern arched doorway. Another group of about 4 tombs is within another compound adjacent to the southwest, the eastern access to which is now blocked by a tomb straddling the doorway. The last 4 tombs are to the south and east of the others, and are not surrounded by a compound wall. Thomas H. Wilson

5. Chambocha Cemetery, Wasini

On the south side of Wasini Island, near the hamlet of Nyuma ya Maji, is found the Chambocha Cemetery; the burial place of the people of Wasini. The reason the cemetery is located so far away from the village is simply because there is not an area without stony ground any closer. At the cemetery, there about 50 tombs in thick bush. The tombs are small, usually single. The facades often have windows or niches and sometimes had plaques as well as bowls and dishes. To boot, some gravestones had inscriptions, although they are now mostly illegible.

6. Pongwe

A few kilometres west of Kidimu are the ruins simply known as Pongwe. Its only remains are the ruins of a small mosque now located about 20 metres inside the high water line, at the edge of the mangroves. It measures about five metres long and four metres wide; although the masonry nowhere stands to above one metre in height, the structure was undoubtedly a mosque: traces of the mihrab can be seen on the north, and there was likely a cistern on the south.

7. Hurumuzi (Hormuz)

The site of Hurumuzi, probably the old Hormuz (Ormuz), is located about 30 minutes’ walk west-south-west of Pongwe, through dense concentrations of mangroves. The site is on a little grassy knoll rising above the surrounding mangroves. Some scatters of local ceramics could be seen, and there were a few stones around that might have belonged once to structures. The main building is a small mosque of a single chamber, entered through a door on the south end of the east wall, and possibly through another in the south wall. The north, east and east half of the south walls stand; the west and west half of the southern walls have fallen. There is a single rectangular column in the centre of the room.