Published On: Tue, Dec 20th, 2016
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Our Trip to Shimoni Kenya and a Visit to the Slave Caves

As we usually do when visiting the coast of Kenya, we like to pick a destination off the beaten path to explore. When we were at Temple Point a few years ago, we visited the Gedi Ruins and explored Watamu and Malindi.

On the southern coast of Kenya, we chose Shimoni and its Slave Caves.

Starting in the 1750s, Shimoni, along with Malindi, Mombasa and other coastal cities and towns, was a primary, ‘slave holding port,’ for east Africa’s coastal slave trade which reached from South Africa to the Middle East. These slave holding pens were located in the natural cave systems that exist in Shimoni. Currently, visitors are granted access to the Shimoni Slave Caves during the guided tour by members of the Shimoni Slave Cave Committee.

Before getting to Shimoni, though, is an adventure in itself. The road heading south was fine. Other than a few small urban centers, and by urban centers I mean a collection of small outposts selling fruits, vegetables and used good, it’s mostly open fields of crops. We think the fields were mostly sugar crops being that there’s a large [relative to the surrounding area, I’d call it huge] sugar processing plant in the area belonging to Kwale International Sugar Company just outside of Ramisi.

Sugar Plant on the way to Shimoni Kenya
Sugar processing plant on the way to Shimoni, off the southern coast of Kenya.

In addition to the occasional police road block — the area has seen some unrest but we had no issues — one thing you can count on is the artistic designs of the tuk tuks and matatus. What I find most fascinating about the designs are how American they are. I mean, not only do you find many of the tuks tuks and matatus featuring American superstars, we even saw one with the Guitar Center. I mean, who choses to use the Guitar Center’s logo on their tuk tuk!?

Tuk Tuk - Guitar Center - Kenya
Shimoni Kenya
Cows on side of the road on the way to Shimoni, Kenya
I’m still getting used to passing a herd of cows just off the “highway.”
A bit old school, but these spikes, used by the police at checkpoints, well, they work. Fortunately we got to drive right through.

Then as you get to the sign pointing to Shimoni, that’s when it gets interesting. The pavement [aka tarmac outside the U.S.] gives way to a winding dirt road. And not a evenly flat one either. We topped out probably 20 mph; I say probably because the speedometer is in kpm and I didn’t see it go past 30 kph once. Maybe we would’ve done better if we had 4×4, but the rental we had was probably designed with tarmac in mind.

Route to Shimoni Kenya
Route to Shimoni Kenya
Shimoni Kenya
Route to Shimoni Kenya
Shimoni Kenya

We are talking about an area that has a long way to go before anyone even thinks about modernizing it. It’s very sparsely populated, relative to the kind of density we’re used to in America. Along the road are these little shops and homesteads, but there aren’t clusters of homes or shops so the people walk for hours and miles to get where they’re going.

But it’s not a forgotten area. Along the way, you’ll find a bunch of NGO projects, mostly for water towers and bathrooms. I can’t help but wonder how much money is granted to these organizations for these projects. Something tells me the grant money doesn’t all go to the project, considering the homemade look of some of the water towers, again, relative to what we’re used to in America.

Route to Shimoni Kenya
This water tower might not be from an NGO project, but they almost all look like this.

One project, though, looked more promising and beneficial. It’s a medical clinic which appears to be the work of Qatar. Interestingly, though, there were partners to the projects, one being Nduku’s current non-profit where she works. This is the second time we ran into the work of where she worked, the first being on our way back from Watamu.

Qatar Medical Clinic in Shimoni Kenya

What we thought would be a 15 minute ride, which it might’ve been in a 4×4, felt like half a day’s worth of driving. A very bumpy, axle-rattling experience for someone used to asphalt.

But, we made it.

And the moment we emerged from the sparsely-populated route to the more densely concentrated area just off the ocean, it was like they were waiting for us. A guy in a t-shirt, jeans and flip flops, hiding behind a pair of shades, making him look more shady than he really was, immediately started talking through the window, telling us where to go. It was hard and confusing figuring out what he was talking about and whether or not to trust him. Me, if I was by myself, I’d follow him to the gallows, one of those naive, intrepid adventurists. Instead, we drove away from him, until that is, there was no one else to go. Coincidentally, when we asked some people in what appeared to be a uniform [meaning matching t-shirts with a logo of what looked like a business] for directions, they recommended we ask the shady-looking guy.

His appearance betrayed that he worked for [or maybe with?] the Kenya Wildlife Service. If so, they really need to get him a uniform. He led us to where the KWS was, where an olive-skinned guy, all muscles, carrying a military-grade machine gun, allowed us in the walled off compound. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t figure out why the wildlife services needed such artillery for protection? Am I missing something? It’s a wildlife service!

Of course, when I saw the baboon bigger than Najwa walking around freely, I first thought I should stand by the guard in case the wild animal got us mixed up with another alpha male. Literally, it stood taller than Najwa even when it’s hands were on the ground.

Eventually, we went back out to the town, where it was hot, noisy and very dusty. Once you get over the chaos, Shimoni has a lot to offer tourists. There’s marine parks, dolphins, isolated islands to visit with a rich history dating back hundreds of years and so forth. Unfortunately, being cautious, we didn’t bring thousands of Kenya Shillings. The concern was that if we were stopped by bandits, and they do have them, then they wouldn’t get much from us.

But, we had plenty for the Slave Caves, one of the main attractions of the area.

The awesome coral caves of Shimoni in Kwale County are a living testimony of the dark days of slavery on the East African coast.

Before anti-slavery crusaders put a halt to human trafficking some two centuries ago, Shimoni Caves, located in a sleepy seafront village some 70km south of Mombasa on the Mombasa-Lunga Lunga road, were used as a waiting pen for captured slaves from the hinterland. Historians estimate that at least 8 million slaves from Africa were shipped away in that time.

Local folklore has it that people trying to escape the marauding slave hunters initially used the natural formations to hide. The caves were also a sacred site used by Kaya elders for prayers and to offer sacrifices long before the invasion of slave traders.

Old iron shackles, wooden crates, rusted chains and metal studs that are well preserved in the caves tell the sorry tale of the African slave trade victims.

Nduku and Najwa entering the Slave at Shimoni Kenya.

The caves are 5 kilometers long, but the parts that are lit, where tourists can walk around, is pretty limited. But, with the surprisingly thorough and well-spoken tour guide’s story-telling, it’s enough for your imagination to take hold and appreciate the horror of the millions of slaves who did make it further into the caves.

It’s murky down there. And when you go a bit further in, there’s hundreds of bats squeaking, shifting and flying around. The most amazing part of the visit was that Najwa didn’t make a beeline out the caves once she realized we were standing just meters [as in perhaps 10 feet] from a bunch of animals that can be creepy when you can’t see them but you can hear that they’re there. She was braver than I thought. And felt.

Slave Caves of Shimoni Kenya
Najwa at the Slave Caves in Shimoni Kenya

Embedded in the wall, after all these generations, was where the chains hooked up to where slaves who tried to escape were chained and beaten. And with the acoustics of the cave, I’m sure that as one caught runaway was beaten, his screams echoing off the walls, what it did to the psyche of the remaining shackled slaves had to be tormenting.

As we walked further, our guide showed us the impossibly small entryway to where slaves were led to board the boat to wherever they were headed. With flooding from the seas, there’s been a build up of silt and whatever else she said that makes it too challenging to venture further, but it doesn’t take much to understand that you’re in a place with ghosts of a very violent past.

Shackles at Shimoni's Slave Caves
Slaves were chained up here and beaten when they tried to escape.

We didn’t stay long after the journey into the caves. Unless you’re going to hop on a boat to the islands, there wasn’t much else to do there. And the last thing we wanted to do was head back after the sun went down. Not that it’s known to be a dangerous place per se, we just didn’t want to find out the hard way.

We did ask about the dirt road, with Shimoni seeming to be a relatively popular tourist attraction for the intrepid, why no one thought to pave it. Apparently, there are many in the communities that line it who don’t want it paved, fearing [and knowing] that development will soon follow, with an army of outsiders coming to hawk their wares, and changing the character of the area. Naturally, others want to see the change, hoping new development will also attract a better way of life.

If I lived there, I’d probably lean towards leaving it the way it is, discouraging enterprising visitors from preying on the community for the sake of money. If the road was paved, I’m sure the entire length of it would have new shops and quasi hotels and restaurants and other developments that would bring a lot of unwanted attention to those who want to just be left to live their simple lives.

With money comes people looking for it, not always be legitimate means. And I’m sure the amount of trash collecting in the area would go through the roof. Public trash cans and a sanitation department don’t exist in these parts of the world.

Of course, if I lived there, I’d have to get me a 4×4.

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About the Author

David Gaines

- David Gaines is a Washington, DC, resident transplanted from North Carolina whose dream career was a newspaper writer but settled for the recruiting industry and simply blogging about whatever thoughts crosses his mind.

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