“This tree whispers, sees, and long ago before its immense powers decayed, it used to talk to fortune-tellers and sorcerers who sought its charm in solving their client’s complex issues,” Ahmed said; his face was expressionless despite the bewilderment registered on some of our faces.
“Wait, what did you say? This tree sees and whispers?” asked Nanyinza, a Ugandan lady who was part of our entourage.
“Yes. Do not be deceived by its stillness.”
There were murmurs of uneasiness and awe. RR, my colleague from work, standing by me dismissed Ahmed.
“How does he know all these, yet he is barely past adolescence?” RR asked in a faded lilt.
“Hapa ni Pwani kaka. They know the secrets of this trade; tell as many lies and weird stories as you can, and you stand a high chance loosening the tourists’ pockets,” Johnteh, another colleague, said; his voice carried a note of mockery. I noticed RR smiling as Ahmed, having allowed the weight of his information to sink in, resumed his monotone.
“If you do not believe me, then let me give you a simple test,” Ahmed said, darting his bloodshot eyes from one end of the gathering to the next. “If you go round this tree three times, you will turn into a lizard; this is no myth or joke. Some have tried and regretted it. Anyone willing to give it a try?”
Ahmed, our tour guide, folded his arms across his chest, grinning as he waited for anyone to take up the challenge.
There was a graveyard silence.
I felt a slight bellyache, a symptom of a bigger malaise, a fear of the unknown. I fought the urge to ask him how he was able to talk to the lizards that were once humans and understood they regretted their actions. But fear clutched at my throat like a pair of tweezers; it tried to strangle me.
No one took the challenge, not even Johnteh, the self-professed knower of the Coastal tour guides’ ways.
Leaving Ahmed behind, we started moving towards another corner of the deserted compound that is Gede Ruins.
It was mid-morning. Despite the hot weather that is characteristic of the coastal region at that time of the year, Gede Ruins was cool, moderately wet, and a gentle, relaxing breeze swept across the myriad of the trees, outgrowths, and parasitic manoeuvring plants that made the place look like the Amazon forest.
Rays of the sun intermittently penetrated webs of tree branches forming thick membrane coverings; the ensuing shadow patches resembled silhouettes of swaying mermaids horizontally suspended across the sky. The place looked creepy, haunted, and could easily pass as a ground for erecting an oracle’s altar.
The day was 29th October 2017. It was a weekend following our arrival in Mombasa five days ago for training on Contracts Management. The two-week training in Mombasa was being conducted by the Eastern and Southern African Management Institute. It comprised thirteen trainees from Kenya and Uganda.
The trip could not have come at a better time for me; Kenya was at the peak of its five-year general elections’ cycle of violence, juvenile intolerance, and tribally suspended logic. 26th October 2017 was a day of a repeat presidential election, and I had nothing to with the maddening frenzy that swept the country. Learning anything new that was apolitical away from the capital city’s tumultuous politics was so irresistible an offer, a blessing that dawned at its opportune time. It was during the first weekend in Mombasa that we visited the Gede Ruins.
Some sources place Gede Ruins’ origin in the 12th century; other historians root for 13th century. Whatever the case, Gede Ruins, located 90 kilometres north of Mombasa and 15 kilometres south of Kilifi, is characterised by collapsed, rugged coral reef walls in a cool, damp, and dense, tropical, aboriginal forest along the Indian Ocean.
Official records by the national museums of Kenya estimate the estate where it lies approximately 45 acres, an estimation befitting what is described as a once buzzing cultural, social, economic town.
Today, however, what stands in place of this once great town are eroded foundations of grand palaces, mosques, panoramic courtyards’ columns, deep wells, coral-brick houses, and a giant native tree a few yards from the main gate of kings. It is at this tree that Ahmed dropped the challenge that the team avoided like the plague.
Once a palace of kings and a collage of Swahili-themed houses, nestled in the Arabuko – Sokoke primeval forest, Gede Ruins is now a National Museum.
The ruins are heavily overgrown with beautiful indigenous forest trees, baobabs, and tamarind. The indigenous forest surrounding the Ruins is still recognized as a sacred site for traditional rituals and sacrifices for the surrounding community.
Ahmed said that two years ago, jobless, he became a beneficiary of the forest’s grace after he offered his dua at one of the desolated mosques. Two days later, someone – he did not know them before – approached him and asked him if they could train him as a guide. Instantly answered prayer, he called it.
The deep wells are partly covered and marked with indelible paint to save animals and people from falling in. Ahmed said water once filled the wells, but he could not explain where the water disappeared to.
As we peeped down one of the open wells, all we saw were wild growths, mushrooms, and racing rats that tried to burrow themselves in open cracks. He mumbled something about the infuriated gods recalling the water once the inhabitants became self-assured of their harvested rainwater and stopped offering sacrifices to them.
When someone asked him about the falling water level and if he knew anything about it, he dismissed Science and asserted that most things in the Ruins had nothing to do with Science; that Science was primitive in understanding the sorcery and spell that lay in the deep forest around the Ruins.
Has he been to the deep forest?
“Never. My cousin’s father went in there to harvest herbs; he never returned,” Ahmed said. “The forest is evil.”
The Ruins have gone through a history of glamour, upheavals, and eventual decimation.
Once, it was laid to waste by the invading nomads from Congo in 14th century who shook the foundations of its majestic palaces, crumbled its decorative walls, carted away some servants into slavery, and killed the resisting inhabitants. But the town endured the invasion, and efforts to rebuild the town began in the 15th century. The workmanship and imported craftsmen who laboured for several months managed to set up a replica of what was destroyed.
But what could not be destroyed by force was eventually upset by tapping into men’s fierce desires for gold, pebbles, artifact jewellery, and higher temporal vanities.
In the 16th century, the wealthy oligarchs from Portugal persuaded the Sheikh of Malindi, the Gede Ruins’ viceroy, to abandon his tiny palaces for a more befitting seat in Mombasa; there, they made him a Sultan, a reward for joining the Portuguese.
Over the years, the inhabitants of Gede Ruins, in avalanches, followed their demi-god, and the once beautiful Gede collapsed to complete ruin in the 17th century. It was to be forgotten till the 19th century when the white men, the British who colonized Kenya, discovered a debris-choked, watered-down, deserted fortress in the thick tropical forest. The British gazetted it a reserve, and soon after, works began to preserve whatever was left of the Ruins.
In the late ‘20s, it was declared a protected monument.
Since then, about 18 hectares of the site have been excavated, and the remains of several mosques, a palace, residential houses, and elaborate pillar tombs have been revealed. Because it is hidden in a deep forest, the site is very unnerving and mindboggling, and the locals’ coined stories do not help slacken the site’s enigma either.
Currently speckled with clusters of mangroves in damp sections of the forest, calcified mounds of collapsed structural refuse, coral reefs, bamboo, cones of pencil-stiff grass standing no more above the ankles, the place is a perfect gateway for camping.
It is ideal for team-building activities, spending quiet moments (unless of course, Ahmed’s tales about muttering trees and spell-bound forest disturb you), epic for artefacts’ collectors, and sacred gift for nature enthusiasts.
In its peak days in the 15th century, the idyllic town was a symbol of wealth and splendour dictated by its many mosques, palaces, beautiful streets, water drinking points, flushing toilets, and watchtowers. Ahmed, a sporadic ruminant, talked about it with a passion of an old man who missed the good old days when fortunes and riches flooded the streets of this presently lonely estate.
A local boy with a slightly bowed left leg and shrivelled body depicting one fed grudgingly by a foster mother, Ahmed possessed too much knowledge than his age. During his tour guide, I remembered the words of my late grandfather: “He who sieves the truth from myths to them belong more life, for even the gods fear such.”
Ahmed was not just a sieve but a salt adder who enjoyed teasing his company. Having defied our trainer’s advice to take the tour of the Ruins unguided (the place is self-explanatory; it has posters with clear descriptions, he had said the previous day), we were now faced with embarrass de richesse in the mould of our little chatterbox, the all-knowing, ubiquitous Ahmed.
Ahmed was vivid in his accounts. He just was. I realized that for his stories and narration prowess, I would miss him. He tucked into his loosely fitting Somali turban wads of notes that we tipped him for his efforts.
“So, Johnteh, why did you not take up the Ahmed challenge?” I asked later as our tour came to an end.
“Ahmed is a madman, but even a madman has relatives; let the young man be,” Johnteh replied.
“If he was mad, why did you not prove him wrong?” quipped RR. A peal of teary laughter ensued as we mounted the steps of our bus.
Perhaps RR, who had weightier interests than the trivial matters of Gede Ruins, might have risked it all had the onion-assed, curvaceous lady from Western Uganda (from that region they’re known to come heavily built with astounding, mouth-watering, tantalising African shape) he was salivating over pressed him to honour Ahmed’s challenge; he might have ended up in the famous company of the great lizards who were once men.
After all, haven’t men done far much worse in pursuit of pleasing the women they adore? RR’s action could have been a tiny grain of wheat in a vast desert of sand.
Side Bar: Attempting to acquire his target, Nanyinza the Ugandan Mami Wata, RR had miscued for the better part of the two-week trip; his frustrations turning into anger capable of boiling a yam. He hated the Ugandan man who never let go of Mami Wata’s shadow, only for RR to hear the man say on the final day of the trip – a shuttle diplomacy by a combatant Kenyan lady had been launched on RR’s request to probe why the damsel was not playing along – that he was no more than an average friend to Mami Wata; that he was married and had zero interests.
RR the aimer, had been searching for the wrong ball all along, almost ending up assassinating innocent souls in the process.