Inter–tidal ‘wreck’ survey in Mida Creek
Many disused boats can be found hauled up onto the beaches of Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. These are testimonies to the coast’s rich maritime cultural heritage, but their potential value to local communities has been largely overlooked. Although they are no longer being used for transportation, fishing, or hauling cargo, such vessels remain part of the region’s heritage and can be a diverse source of value.
MUCH to Discover in Mida Creek commissioned a survey in May 2019 to create an interactive map of the ‘wrecks’ within the creek’s inter-tidal areas. One purpose of this mapping exercise was to document the kinds of marine vessels used throughout Mida Creek’s tidal channels. Another reason for carrying out this map of disused boats was to create a record in light of ongoing purchases of such ‘abandoned’ boats for the purpose of making furniture and other objects for sale in the tourism industry. From many places along the East African coast where there is a significant tourist economy, a new taste for chairs, mirror frames, and other kinds of furnishings made from disused, beached vessels has created a market for this heritage.
In the shadow of the dhow
Boat building and maintenance is characteristic mark of a maritime culture (Prins 1965). The iconic ‘dhow’ is a symbol of Swahili maritime culture par excellence. Dhow building and sailing has occupied academic interests and continues to drive significant debate about the Indian Ocean world, its histories, its global connections (see Gilbert 2004; Sheriff 2010; Prins 1965; Villiers 1940). Indeed, Lamu’s Dhow Festival is testimony to the allure of these large ocean- going vessels among local peoples and foreigners alike. Yet resting in the shadows of such larger vessels are the many different kinds of smaller boats. This mapping exercise sought to draw attention to the significance of small maritime craft used for inter-tidal or inshore fisheries and transportation. It was hoped that MUCH to Discover in Mida Creek might inspire visitors to participate in the living traditions of the creek’s communities, including boat- building, taking a trip in such boats, as well as contributing to an online project of documenting ‘wrecks’ as artefacts of significant historical and cultural value.
Mida Creek Boat Map
Visitors to the MUCH to be Discovered at Mida Creek project will be invited to ‘see’ the maritime cultural heritage as they move around the creek and its channels. A Google Earth Project, the Mida Creek Boat Map, can serve to guide visitors around the various sites, most of which are fishing villages or landing sites.
Mida Creek’s vessels in context
Mida Creek is currently situated within three important gazetted areas: (1) Watamu National Marine Park; (2) Arabuko-Sokoke Forest; and (3) Gede National Monument. Restrictions in economic activities apply to all of these sites. The creek itself is part of a bio-sphere reserve and certain restrictions are in place on how local residents may use their natural resources.
Fisheries continue to be a significant, although threatened, resource for making a living. Small dugout canoes, mtumbwi (or dau as they are known locally) are all-purpose boats for most inter-tidal fisheries and, on occasion, for ferrying visitors to sites of special interest in the creek. The boat-building activities that took place with this project in 2019 were commissioned to build new mtumbwi that visitors can experience.
Hori – a variation on the mtumbwi (dau) but used to move between the shore and larger vessels at anchor. Note that only one example of this was found during the survey, but presumably during the active years of the mangrove trade, these would have been numerous.
Ngalawa – this outrigger canoe was used for littoral transportation, as well as for reaching outlying reefs for spear and net fishing. There was one ngalawa found during the survey at Uyombo. They are popular among tourists for local excursions under sail.
Mashua – these are the smaller of the iconic lateen sail ‘dhows’, mainly used for fishing on the ocean for pelagic fish, sharks, and snapper; and/or for transport of cargo from port to port. Fishermen could live aboard these craft and they are used in coasting very long distances.
Mtumbwi – dugout canoes made from mwembe wood (mango) trees, or msufi (kapok), used extensively in the inter-tidal zones of the creek. They are propelled, or punted, through the water using poles (kafi).
The saline and coralline environments takes a toll on wooden boats. While these vessels are mainly made from mango wood or mwembe, as well as msufi (kapok, or cotton-tree), the availability and costs of this wood has become a challenge for most craftsmen. As boat- maintenance has been changed by the availability of new materials and techniques, the
‘fibreglass revolution’ within boat-building traditions has been applied also to repairing these smaller inshore and inter-tidal craft. Most significant landing sites near villages in the creek have boat-sheds constructed of straight mangrove poles (boriti) and palm-frond thatch (makuti) to provide craftsmen and their assistants with shelter and shade while they are working. The MUCH to Discover in Mida Creek ‘dhow-house’, where experimental archaeology activities will take place, is an example of this local, indigenous architecture.
Until there is a wide understanding that small inter-tidal and inshore boats are of significant cultural heritage value, their looting will continue. As such boats become replaced by fibreglass vessels, some of their unique manoeuvrability and handling in sheltered, inter-tidal channels will surely be lost. Boats like mtumbwi are perfectly adapted to reach deep inside tidal mangrove channels to exploit resources only found there. Whether it is fishing or taking tourists into the mangrove, such vessels are an important, central part of the maritime cultural heritage of the creek’s communities.
By creating a map of the existing disused boats, MUCH to Discover in Mida Creek creates an opportunity for local people to document the stories of each of these boats. The hope is that an intriguing record of mtumbwi, hori, ngalawa, and the larger mashua will inspire new research and programming into Mida’s fascinating maritime traditions. Not only will an interactive map bring about a record of such boats locations, it also curates them digitally and may start a process whereby local fishermen and their owners value them for something other than the small amounts of money that collectors or looters will pay for them. A map can educate school children, as well as being a source of potential fun as they explore other aspects of the creek’s rich marine and maritime heritage. As biocultural artefacts, such boats tell an interesting story about the special adaptations and history of Mida Creek within a wider world.
Suggested and Further Reading:
- Falck, W. E. (2014). Boats and Boatbuilding in T anzania (D ar-es-S alaam and Zanzibar). International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43(1), 162-173.
- Gilbert, E. (2011). The dhow as cultural icon: heritage and regional identity in the western Indian Ocean. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 17(1), 62-80.
- Gilbert, E. (2004). Dhows & the colonial economy of Zanzibar: 1860-1970. Oxford: James Currey.
- Pollard, E., & Bita, C. (2017). Ship engravings at Kilepwa, Mida Creek, Kenya. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 52(2), 173-191.
- Prins, A. H. J. (1965). Sailing from Lamu: a study of maritime culture in Islamic East Africa.
- Sheriff, A. (2010). Dhow Culture of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam. Columbia University Press.
- Villiers, A. (1940). Sons of Sinbad: An Account of Sailing with the Arabs in Their Dhows, in the Red Sea, Round the Coast of Arabia, and to Zanzibar and Tanganyika, Pearling in the Persian Gulf, and the Life of the Shipmasters and the Mariners of Kuwait. Hodder & Stoughton.
- Weiss, E. A. (1973). Some indigenous trees and shrubs used by local fishermen on the East
- African Coast. Economic Botany, 27(2), 174-192.