This small port 10km north of Mtwara, with its sleepy old Swahili town of narrow alleys, balconied double-storey homesteads and carved Zanzibar doors, is of far greater historical significance than its upstart neighbour. Indeed, for much of the 19th century, Mikindani was the most important port south of Kilwa Kivinje, and it is from here that Livingstone launched his last fatal expedition into the interior. Today, Mikindani is overshadowed by Mtwara in most respects, but it does make the more appealing base for travellers, largely thanks to the efforts of two under-publicised tourist organisations based here.
The first of these is the British non-profit organisation Trade Aid, which funds community projects and provides local employment and educational opportunities through sustainable ecotourism. The pivot of this project is the restored German Boma, which now provides the best upmarket accommodation anywhere along the south coast. Other ventures include an organic market garden, a tree nursery, and a small restaurant called Samaki to serve the local people.
A newer development is the establishment of eco2 (m 0784 855 833; e email@example.com; www.eco2tz.com), a diving, marine research and education centre whose waterfront office stands alongside the affiliated Ten Degrees South. Owned by a qualified marine biologist and PADI instructor with ten years’ experience in the region, the centre offers diving and snorkelling expeditions outside Mikindani Bay and in Mnazi Bay–Ruvuma Estuary Marine Park, the latter possibly the best diving site in East Africa. Eco2 is an active participant in reef protection projects and its community development fund gets a dollar from every dive.
HISTORY Named for the palms (mikinda) that flourish in the vicinity, Mikindani town is not so antiquated as its timeworn façade might suggest. A late 19th-century settlement, it peaked commercially as an exporter of rubber and agricultural produce during the years that divided the abolition of the slave trade from German colonisation. It remained an important administrative centre until the end of World War II; the time-warped aura that envelops Mikindani today is attributable to lack of urban development after 1947, when it was abandoned as a regional centre in favour of Mtwara.
Early years Human habitation of Mikindani Bay, the arc of small harbours and inlets on which both Mikindani and Mtwara are sited, stretches back for millennia. The proto-Makonde had arrived on the bay by the 9th century, and Shirazi traders may have settled there at about the same time, though no ruins survive to confirm this probability. The first known reference to Mikindani Bay (under a different name) is on a 1796 map drawn by Alexander Dalyrimple.
The oldest first-hand account of the area was penned by Lieutenant Boteler of the HMS Barracouta, which anchored at the bay in 1824. The major settlement at this time was Pemba, on the northern entrance of the harbour on which Mikindani stands today. Boteler describes Pemba as being dominated by a ‘fine castellated building of the old Portuguese … on the side of a steep hill … neatly whitewashed [and] most likely garrisoned’. Boteler also noted that the bay was ‘inhabited by Arabs, probably under the Sultan of Muscat’. It is known that Pemba was then a major supplier of slaves to Reunion, Seychelles and Comoros: the Arabic inhabitants mentioned by Boteler were almost certainly Omani slave traders, and it would have been they, rather than the Portuguese, who constructed the castellated hillside fortification.
Livingstone in Mikindani The explorer David Livingstone arrived at Mikindani on 24 March 1866, rented a house in the nearby village of Pemba, and rested up for two weeks before embarking on his final expedition into the African interior. Livingstone cited Mikindani as ‘the finest port on the coast’, but was unimpressed by its Arabic inhabitants, whom he characterised as ‘a wretched lot physically, thin, washed out creatures – many with bleary eyes’. Nor were they particularly devout: ‘many of them came and begged brandy, and laughed when they remarked that they could drink it in secret, but not openly’.
Upon enquiring about the settlers’ history, Livingstone was told they had ‘not been here long’ but noted that ‘a ruin on the northern peninsula … built of stone and lime Arab fashion, and others on the northwest, show that the place has been known and used of old’. The fort described by Boteler was evidently disused by then, perhaps due to a slump in the slave trade, and the sense of economic decline is reinforced by Livingstone’s reference to the ‘agent of the Zanzibar customs house [who] presides over the customs, which are very small’. Eight years later, Vice Consul Elton reported that the district had ‘been subjected to attacks from the inland and neighbouring tribes, who have burnt the houses [and] lifted the cattle … It is proposed to desert Mikindani and make a stand at Lindi. Trade is at stand still.’
Boom years By 1880, when Vice Consul Holmwood undertook an extensive tour of the south coast, Mikindani was entrenched as the main urban centre on the eponymous bay, with a rapidly growing population ‘both Arabs and natives … Banyans and Hindi’. Its fortunes, too, had undergone a dramatic upswing. Holmwood noted that ‘Mikindani had prospered immensely since Livingstone had visited it’, and felt that the recently established rubber plantations had resulted in ‘a complete revolution [with] all classes deriving their income from it or through it’. He remarked on the ‘large number of goats and cattle’, and on how ‘trade had increased exceedingly [with] almost all the produce of the Rovuma region finding its way there’. Holmwood ended his glowing appraisal by stating that ‘South of Bagamoyo, Mikindani will now rank in importance next after Kilwa and Lindi’.
Prosperous Mikindani formed the obvious choice for Germany’s southeast regional headquarters, and it was settled as such in 1890. Mikindani remained the most important settlement on the bay, and the administrative centre for Rovuma region, until the late 1940s, when the colonial government relocated to Mtwara to develop its harbour to service the infamous post-war groundnut scheme.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY Mtwara Airport is only 15km distant, and road transfers can be arranged in advance through the Old Boma. In addition, taxis wait at the airport for all incoming flights. Mikindani straddles the main surfaced road towards Lindi some 10km north of Mtwara, making it highly accessible whether by public transport or in a private vehicle. All buses heading between Lindi and Mtwara will stop at Mikindani on request. Regular light buses ply the road between Mtwara and Mikindani all day through.
WHERE TO STAY
A The Old Boma (8 rooms) m 0784 360110; e firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.mikindani.com. Dominating the Mikindani skyline, the former German Boma, built in 1895, lies on the slopes of Bismarck Hill about 300m from the main road. It served as the regional administrative headquarters in 1947, then as a police station, but had fallen into an advanced state of disrepair when it was taken over by Trade Aid in 1998. Now immaculately restored to its former whitewashed pomp, the Old Boma is arguably the nicest hotel on the south coast, with airy en-suite dbls with netting, fan, hot bath & Swahili furnishings, & wooded grounds containing a swimming pool & excellent restaurant. It has the only internet access in town. Rooms start at GB£45/70 sgl/dbl B&B depending on size.
A Ten Degrees South (10 rooms) m 0746 855833; email@example.com; http://www.tendegreessouth.com. Affiliated with eco2, this friendly English-owned lodge on the waterfront has pleasant rooms with dbl bed, netting & fan with common showers, & a new wing of en-suite rooms, with further accommodation planned in the form of self-catering cottages on a new hilltop plot with wonderful views over the bay. The outdoor restaurant has a varied menu, with seafood something of a speciality. The satellite TV in the bar shows important sport events, & the music selection is unusually eclectic. US$20 dbl with common showers; USD$60 en-suite dbl.
WHERE TO EAT The Old Boma serves the best and most imaginative food in town, with most meals in the US$6-10 range. Ten Degrees South has a varied seafood-dominated menu with main courses at US$5-8. Several cheaper places are scattered around town, the best being Ismaili’s Corner Bar in the Old Slave Market, and the greener Muku’s Bar next to the main dala-dala stop, both of which serve chilled beers and sodas, along with seafood and chicken dishes for under US$5.
WHAT TO SEE The alleys of Mikindani have an absorbing time-warped mood that makes the town more than the sum of its architectural landmarks. Nevertheless, a short stroll around reveals a wealth of buildings dating from the late Omani and German colonial periods. The most distinguished of these, built in 1895, is the Old Boma which combines elements of German and Arabic architecture and was recently restored as a hotel.
Below the Old Boma is the so-called Old Slave Market, a German building that actually post-dates the slave trade by two decades, though it is reputedly constructed over a former Omani slave market – which, some claim, previously served as a Portuguese ivory store. Whatever the truth of this story, the misconceived ‘restoration’ of the old market has forsaken much of its architectural integrity by bricking in the old arches and slapping lavish paint all over the stone exterior. Historical continuity, at least, is maintained by the clutch of – very good – local craft shops and eateries that trade out of the restored market.
Opposite the old market, a commemorative plaque celebrating ‘the reputed dwelling place of David Livingstone’ is posted with palpable disingenuity on the wall of a two-storey balconied building on the corner of the waterfront road. Livingstone almost certainly resided in a nearby village called Pemba, and his ‘reputed dwelling place’ is nothing more or less than one of several fading early to mid-20th-century homesteads built by Arab or Indian merchants. Several other such homesteads, many with wooden first-floor balconies, can be seen alongside the alleys that lead inland from this corner.
Of a similar vintage to the Old Boma, the ruined German Customs House, which stands on the waterfront next to the bus station and was possibly expanded from an Omani or Portuguese slave prison, was damaged during a British naval raid in 1916. The nearby Aga Kahn Building, also on the waterfront, is probably the oldest in town; built in the mid 19th century by a wealthy Arab trader and distinguished by its unusual staircase, it now serves as an Islamic preschool. Several old Arab graves can be seen around town; it was customary in Mikindani to mark the tomb of a sultan with a baobab tree at each end, so the two would eventually intertwine.
The Old Boma acts as a tourist information centre and local tour operator. Several day excursions are on offer. These include guided walks through Mikindani, dhow trips, snorkelling and fishing motorboat trips, and a visit to Lake Chidya and the Rovuma River. Overnight excursions include a snorkelling trip to Msimbati in the Mnazi Bay Marine Reserve, a round excursion to the Rondo Plateau and a two-night safari to the wild Lukwika Lumesule Game Reserve. Meanwhile, eco2, with a waterfront office next to Ten Degrees South, is the place to organise diving and snorkelling excursions in Mikindani Bay and further afield.
(c) Philip Briggs 2012