Kenyan Descendants of Slaves Struggle To Belong

Denied citizens' rights, the residents of Frere Town continue to confront their ancestral fate

Kenyan Descendants of Slaves Struggle To Belong
Matano Mwambila and his colleagues, all descendants of former slaves, look at a map of modern day Frere Town. (Gioia Shah)

On a humid morning, nine men are crammed into the office of Ambwere T.S. & Associates Advocates in the north wing of a shabby office building in the old town of Mombasa. Some are sitting on chairs, others are leaning against the wall or poking their heads through the door of the flimsy cubicle that separates the lawyer’s office from the waiting room. They are agitated. A fan rotating above, the group’s leader explains that their community’s social hall was locked up by the local government, and they want their keys back.

“We want you to write a letter,” Matano Mwambila says to the advocate.

The lawyer listens to the group while shuffling papers around on his desk, every so often stealing a look at his laptop where an online meeting is underway. He is in a rush, due in court in a few minutes. But he is familiar with the group and their conundrum. He advises them to meet their local government representative first. After he returns from court, he can write a letter, the lawyer assures. Deflated, Mwambila and the rest of the group file out of the office, past shelves packed with files bound together by string. Down on the busy Mombasa street they hop into a car and tuk-tuks — auto rickshaws — and head toward the office of their government representative.

Mwambila is used to mornings like this. This wasn’t his first trip to the lawyer’s office, nor will it be his last. And while things move slowly, the stakes are high. The 57-year-old is a math and science teacher, but the rest of the time he is the head of a small community with a unique history in Kenya: Their ancestors were slaves. In the late 19th century they were freed from slavery on the East African coast and settled on a plot of land that came to be known as Frere Town. Today, the settlement has been swallowed up by the sprawling Kenyan port city of Mombasa. But Frere Town is still the community’s home — the only home they have. And their social hall is its beating heart.

For Mwambila and his colleagues, retrieving the keys to this building is a small battle in a larger war they have waged for decades to protect their home and their right to belong in Kenya. Their fate was dictated by the ebbs and flows of power in East Africa, and today they feel marginalized by a country that is still untangling itself from its colonial past.

“My great-grandfather, [on my] father’s side, he came from Malawi,” Mwambila tells New Lines, while sitting in the car that is rolling through dusty midday traffic. He is short with an energetic and confident demeanor. He explains that his ancestor was taken as a slave to the coast of Kenya, sold and put on a ship to be transported across the Indian Ocean, which was intercepted by the patrolling British navy. “He was rescued in the ship.”

Mwambila’s great-grandfather was an unwitting pawn in the bid for control over Africa that was at play in the 19th century. A stretch of the East African coastline had been under the influence or control of Omani Arabs for centuries, first from Oman and later from the archipelago of Zanzibar. The sultanate had flourished in large part due to a thriving slave trade that saw Africans initially transported across the Indian Ocean but increasingly used as plantation labor on the coast and in Zanzibar, producing dates, cloves, grains and sesame for export. Estimates vary as to how large the slave trade was, but historians suggest several million Africans were enslaved. As Great Britain sought to extend its influence over East Africa and the sultanate of Zanzibar, and under pressure from missionaries and abolitionists to end the slave trade in its spheres of influence, it used the abolition of slavery to neutralize the sultan’s economic power.

In 1873 Sir Bartle Frere, a former governor of British-ruled Bombay (present-day Mumbai), India, was sent by his government to the sultan of Zanzibar to negotiate an end to the slave trade. Initially, freed slaves were taken to Aden in Yemen and on to Bombay, says Herman Kiriama, a historian and assistant professor at Kisii University in Kenya. However, Bartle “argued that they were so far from Africa, so that it was better they were taken nearer to their homes where they would feel more at home.” A suitable area of around 600 acres was found on the outskirts of Mombasa, and in 1874 a settlement was created, which was intended to become a center for training teachers and missionaries, according to Kiriama. Run by a British missionary society, it bore the name of the man in large part responsible for its birth.

Frere Town resident Frederick Uledi holds up his ID from the time Britain ruled Kenya. (Gioia Shah)

Under British rule, Frere Town and its residents were looked after. “During the British government we were happy, we were very happy,” Frederick Uledi, a lifelong resident of Frere Town, tells New Lines. Born in 1932, the 91-year-old remembers those years well: “Life was very smooth, very good.” The British Church Missionary Society (CMS) ran the settlement, which had electricity, running water and clean streets. Residents received a monthly stipend, and schooling and vocational training was offered. They were taught to read and write English, and some found employment in the civil service. Compared with neighboring communities, they lived in relative privilege. But for the British rulers and the CMS, the motivation was far from altruistic: “The aim was to ‘civilize’ them,” Kiriama says. In return for the comforts of Frere Town they were expected to leave behind their own heritage, culture and beliefs.

Over the years Frere Town ballooned, becoming a home not only for freed slaves but also runaway slaves, those fleeing drought and conflict, and communities simply seeking a better life. Even when the settlement’s land was sold and a much smaller area of around 50 acres was bought nearby in the 1930s, Frere Town continued to offer its residents a comfortable home. And increasingly, for the former slaves that hailed from Malawi, Tanzania and across eastern and southern Africa, it also gave its residents an identity.

Sitting on a plastic chair on the covered veranda of his house, Uledi speaks over the loud cawing of Indian house crows that are nestled in the crown of a tree nearby. The brown-breasted black birds came as stowaways on trading ships across the Indian Ocean to Kenya; now they are a pest in Mombasa. His walking stick leaning against the wall behind him, Uledi shows his ID card from the days of British rule. In the photo a round-cheeked young man wearing a suit and tie looks sternly into the camera. Next to his name written in cursive is “Mnyamwezi,” the name given to a person of the Nyamwezi people of Tanzania.

At that time, as a British subject, his Tanzanian heritage was of no consequence. But that changed when Kenya gained independence in 1963.

“Unfortunately, they don’t recognize us,” Uledi says of the Freretownians. By “they,” Uledi means the Kenyan government. Without belonging to one of the officially recognized tribes in the East African nation, gaining a national ID card is difficult. And without an ID card, they can’t access public services such as health care.

“We have been fighting for that thing up to now,” says Mwambila, who chairs the Frere Town Descendants Community Association. It represents the descendants of the slaves who were freed and settled in Frere Town, whom he refers to simply as “the descendants.” In order to integrate and acquire an ID card, most descendants have chosen to marry someone from the local communities or simply lie and take on one of their names. “If you don’t attach yourself to any tribe … then you’re finished,” he says. For years, the Freretownians have been trying to register themselves as a tribe of their own in Kenya. However, according to the local government, disputes within the community over what to call themselves have hampered the process. Angela Tito, the assistant county commissioner for Frere Town, tells New Lines that the government has started a dialogue with the community to encourage them to speak in “one voice.”

If the Freretownians are a tribe, their church is their nexus. The Church of St. Emmanuel stands tucked away from Nyali Road, a central artery of Mombasa. The pale-yellow, flat-roofed building with colonnaded walkways on either side was built by freed slaves in 1889. “They took the materials just here from the ocean,” Mwambila says proudly, looking onto the church. “All this is what they made with their bare hands.”

Inside the building the air is cool. The walls are painted turquoise and white, but the stone floor is still in its original form, rough and speckled. A small brass plaque on the wall of the chancel is dedicated to the British architect of the building. Nearby, on the corner of a small public park stands another important symbol of the community: a bell tower that, in the early years of the Frere Town settlement, was rung to warn residents of slave ships sighted in the creek of Mombasa. Today, only a plastic replica of the bell hangs from the tower.

Walking along the shaded arcade of the church, Mwambila calls the building the community’s “archive.” Descendants are baptized here, their communion administered here, he explains. No matter where in the world they live, descendants return to this church to get married. And it is in this church that descendants are given their final farewell.

“This is the only building which is uniting us,” the 57-year-old explains.

But while the church once served only the Frere Town descendants, the congregation now hails from all surrounding areas. Church elders, voted in by the congregation to govern the church, are no longer exclusively Freretownians. The Rev. Francis Kesi, a curate at the church, defends this shift. A church “is not a project of an individual or a group,” he says. “No, a church is a place where any person, any member of the community can come to worship God.”

A struggle between the Freretownians and the Anglican Church of Kenya came to a head in 2007 and the community since lost their exclusive control over the church. For a pulsating and diverse metropolis like Mombasa, this might seem like a natural evolution. But for the Frere Town descendants, this feels like an existential threat.

“It is our identity. It is the only thing which is now remaining, associated with us,” Mwambila says. “It is our symbol.”

Mwambila and his colleagues have arrived at the headquarters of their local government representative to speak with the deputy county commissioner (DCC) for the sub-county of Nyali. They pile into the office of Patrick Kilonzo, a district officer — another small, humid room, a fan rotating above their heads. After a round of introductions, Kilonzo apologizes that his boss, the DCC, is too busy to see the group today. Britain’s King Charles III is on an official visit to Kenya and will be arriving in Mombasa that day. Swiveling from side to side in his office chair, he listens to the group as they detail the loss of the keys to their social hall. There is nothing he can do, Kilonzo says in a friendly yet patronizing tone, as if speaking to schoolchildren. “But when I see the DCC and give him a briefing, this is the very first thing I will brief him on,” he assures them.

Charles’ visit to Mombasa is imbued with ironic symbolism. While it was the British who freed the slaves and established Frere Town, it is the British whom Mwambila and his community blame for the dire straits they find themselves in. Under British rule, Frere Town was run independently by the Church Missionary Society and thus had administrative autonomy. “When independence came, the autonomy of Frere Town was removed from them,” says Kiriama, an expert on the legacy of slavery on the Kenyan coast.

From the point of view of the descendants, the British failed to hand over Frere Town with a clear directive as to the legal status of the land and its inhabitants. Now they want the British government — and its monarch — to rectify that mistake. Mwambila holds in his hand a memorandum that the community drafted and addressed to the king. On five typed pages they detail their history, their problems and their demands, the writing permeated with reverence and formalities. They had hoped to somehow pass it to the king during his visit. “They are the ones that brought us here. Why are they leaving us?” the 57-year-old criticizes. “The British have to come and to support us to identify as Freretownians.”

Independence didn’t just sweep away the privileges of the Freretownians. The descendants, numbering a few thousand today, fear their very land is being pulled out from under them. Across Kenya, land ownership is a highly contentious issue, and this harks back to the colonial period when the British rulers dispossessed many communities of their land. Land disputes persist to this day and are fueled by political machinations and corruption. The county government is trying to “manipulate things,” Mwambila alleges, looking at a map of Frere Town that his friend Jones Wanje, the assistant chair of the descendants’ association, is holding. He claims that the tracts of land on which the school, football field and social hall sit belong to the community. And he wants the government to recognize their ownership.

The local authorities, however, see things differently. “There is no proof of ownership” over this land, says Tito, the assistant county commissioner. She says the land issue is contentious but that they are working to resolve it. These are “ongoing cases,” she says. “One of the long-term goals is to make one of the social halls a cultural and museum center to preserve their heritage for the generations to come.”

Walking through Frere Town, another more subtle force appears to be at play. Along the dirt roads, barber shops and small stores selling fruits, chips and sodas serve the community. But these are run mostly by people from other communities who rent the shop fronts from descendants, explains Mwambila. Over the decades, many descendants have sold their plots or moved away. Non-Freretownians with a different history have settled in the area. Many of the children going to the Frere Town Primary School, wearing purple and mint-green uniforms, are not descendants of slaves. The very fabric of Frere Town is changing, and the descendants fear their community is gradually slipping through their fingers like sand.

In recent years, some Freretownians have made attempts to reconnect with their roots. Agnes Manasseh Jola’s ancestors were from Malawi; both her great-grandmother Theresa and her great-grandfather Songoro were slaves. The 67-year-old lives a stone’s throw away from the Frere Town social hall. Wearing a pink laced kaftan and pink headscarf that match the dusty rose walls of her living room, Manasseh Jola holds a booklet in her hand that reads “Songoro & Theresa — Family Tree.” It details the names of her entire family since her ancestors were enslaved, freed and settled in Frere Town. This history is known to her — but what came before that is a mystery. “My brother tried to go back home to find out about our heritage,” she says. But without much information to go on, he wasn’t able to locate the place where their great-grandparents came from. All he was able to find out, says Manasseh Jola, was that her great-grandfather’s name “Songoro” was common there. It was too little to foster a connection. “We have no choice but to feel like Frere Town is home.”

The cemetery of the Frere Town descendants used exclusively for their community. (Gioia Shah)

The final vestige of the community’s identity is located a few minutes’ drive away. The cemetery that is exclusively for the use of the Frere Town descendants is accessible through a gate on a busy market road. But neither the gate nor the perimeter wall serve to protect it. The burial ground is dilapidated, with plastic bottles and chip packets wedged in between the graves. Some headstones are broken, others are missing. Drug addicts slink away to the far wall where they sit in the shade of a tree. A herd of goats is grazing on the overgrown grass between the tombstones. Looking at one of the graves, Wanje recalls a childhood memory about an elder of his community. “He used to call us to his house and point to a hole in his ankles,” Wanje says. “That was the mark of the shackles when he was held a slave.”

Their land, their church, their cemetery — the meaning of these places goes to the core of the Freretownians’ identity. They are “symbolic arenas where residents go to gain a physical connection with the past,” writes historian Kiriama. They are not necessarily important because of their physical form but because of what they embody and the memories they hold. The ties to their original homelands severed by slavery and Christianization under British rule, Frere Town became not only their home but their heritage and identity, too. Today, for the descendants, their demands to be recognized as a tribe in their own right, to have control over their church and to secure ownership over their land are an existential matter. If they lose Frere Town, they fear they will lose themselves.

A week after the visits to their lawyer and government representative, Mwambila and his friends are still waiting for the return of the keys to their social hall. They have since had a meeting with the DCC, who freed up some time after the king departed Kenya. The DCC argues that the social hall belongs to the local government, as it was constructed using government funds, says Mwambila. But Mwambila insists it belongs to the Frere Town descendants, built for the descendants on land owned by them. Now the DCC might call the residents of the ward for their help to determine the owner of the keys. The Frere Town descendants could be in for a long battle, one they might lose.

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