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People of Mombasa: why is your town so dirty?

Mombasa is very dear to me. Mombasa is childhood memories; wonderful sights and sounds; spicy aromas; and, of course, the peerless Indian Ocean.

Mombasa is a cradle of culture; the place where diverse languages and cuisines and songs have interlocked for centuries.

Mombasa is the biggest port in the region, the place where most of our trade enters and leaves our shores.

Mombasa has historically been the focus of Kenyan tourism, with so many visitors flocking in to spend time immersed in its unique history and enjoying its landscapes and hospitality.

That is why it hurts me enormously to ask: what the hell happened to Mombasa?

I still go to Mombasa very often. But these days the trips are tinged with frustration and annoyance. Mombasa gives the impression of being a town in severe decline, on all fronts.

Let’s begin with the most obvious symptom. Can someone tell me why Mombasa needs to be so filthy? Why there are mounds of uncollected rubbish on every roadside; why plastic refuse marks every landscape; why every beach is full of uncollected debris?

What does it take to keep a place clean? It does not require massive funding; does not need advanced equipment and technology; does not demand complex project plans. It just requires a mindset that detests filth. And that, I’m afraid, is what Mombasa has forgotten.

It is easy to blame this on leadership, and Mombasa has often contributed handsomely to the worldwide pantheon of ridiculous and incompetent leaders. It beggars belief, nonetheless, that even those comedians who purport to lead that historic town these days can drive past the piles of rubbish everywhere and not feel an iota of shame.

But people of Mombasa, where are you in all this squalor? You sit and watch that garbage grow, and you do nothing? You don’t demand better from your leaders? You don’t even clean up the fronts of your own homes? You don’t take matters into your own hands? Why don’t you collect that garbage and deposit it smack outside the council offices every day until something is done?

But why would you do that when you seem to walk happily amongst the detritus every day without flinching? When anti-fungal paint and repairing broken windows seem to be alien concepts to even the most well-heeled amongst you?

Mombasa is letting itself down. Nairobi, too, has its filthy side and world-class slums. But Nairobi has not descended to the point where garbage marks the entrance to our international airport; dots our major highways; or litters even our posh suburbs. Mombasa has a different order-of-magnitude problem.

This is heartbreaking to see, but it has real consequences. Mombasa’s fame these days is as a town that wallows in the drug trade. It is crippled by traffic jams worse than Nairobi’s, as a small island with ancient roads ignores the problem of ever-increasing vehicles. Mombasa’s rating as a tourist destination has plunged every year, and its average realised revenue per room is sorely affected by its visible decline and poor reputation. The average quality of Mombasa’s hotels has fallen commensurately. The few establishments trying to set a certain standard within the environs of the town are fighting a losing battle.

I repeat, it hurts me to write this. I am not mocking Mombasa, but asking those who live in it and love it to stand up for themselves. Those of you who can still see straight need to take a hard look at what your town is today compared to what it once was. The best symbolic (and practical) thing you can do is to walk outside after reading this and organise a few hands to pick up that needless rubbish outside your door.

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