Saving Swahili urban landscapes

There is more to East African coastal cities than the typical honeymoon pictures of white sand beaches they produce. The cobbled streets of  Lamu Old Town (Kenya), Zanzibar’s Stone Town (Tanzania) and Ilha de Mozambique (Mozambique) are lined with Swahili architecture, including former stately homes of Swahili Sultans. In my journey through different Swahili settlements since 2010, such as those at Ibo Island and Ilha de Mozambique, Mombasa, Lamu and Zanzibar, I have seen many of these cherished buildings on the brink of collapse.

The value of this architecture is recognized by UNESCO, which has included Lamu Old Town, Stone Town and Ilha de Mozambique in its list of 981 World Heritage sites. But when walking through any of these urban spaces, one realizes that only a few privileged buildings are restored, leaving most Swahili buildings in a state of abandonment.

The motley elements of the architecture in these coastal cities enriches the urban landscapes of the ancient Swahili capitals. As explained by Hanna Kruse & Lotta Torstensson (pp.55), in their master’s thesis, the traditional urban Swahili House is characterized by a “veranda in the front, three rooms on each side of a central corridor from which all rooms are accessed, and the backyard.” They are considered flexible because the ground plan can be changed within the limits of the basic structure. They differ from other types of African domestic structures because of their rectangular, instead of circular, shape.

Traditional houses on the Swahili coast have doors adorned with geometric figures and floral motifs carved in relief. The production of wooden doors climaxed in the 19th century on Zanzibar island. And woodcarving continues to be a popular profession.

Carved door in Lamu. Gemma Solés.

Unfortunately, governments have invested little to preserve this rich coastal architecture. Some of the buildings that are better preserved nowadays are those that have been transformed into hotels. This is the case with The Africa House, in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, originally the royal residence of a rich slave merchant from Oman who transferred it to the Sultan of Zanzibar. According to the hotel’s website, in 1888 it was the first English Club of East Africa.

To promote the urban conservation of these kinds of buildings UNESCO hosted a set of workshops for local authorities in the three cities mentioned above on the Historic Urban Landscape approach. The aim was to train local actors to implement policies to prevent the decline and abandonment of Swahili architecture. Judging by the current situation of the most emblematic Swahili buildings, such actions are essential so that the architectural richness of the Swahili coast is not lost.

 

Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.

 

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