• The community comprises slaves freed from Arab merchants by British Royal Navy forces in the 1840s.
• They were then settled in Mombasa’s north mainland, with Frere Town getting its name from Sir Bartle Frere of the British navy.
“Let’s meet at Kengeleni because that is where our story starts. From there, I will take you to the church,” the man had told me over the phone.
And so, on a Thursday morning at 10am, my rendezvous with the chairman of Frere Town Community, Price Uledi, came to pass.
Kengeleni, Kiswahili for "where the bell is located", is situated just near the famous Kongowea market in Mombasa. It is also the starting point of the recently renamed Fidel Odinga Road off the Mombasa-Malindi highway, heading northwards past the Nyali bridge.
At the site, Uledi gave me a brief background of the ancient but stout edifice. Many not familiar with its story may wonder how it came to be standing there amidst the development surrounding it.
“This bell used to serve several purposes in those days. There were different beats of the bell that relayed different messages,” he said before counting the reasons on his fingers.
“Firstly, the bell was rung to alert people that it was time for church. Secondly, it was also used to call people to attend classes.
“Then it also announced danger. That meant people could either hide or prepare to defend themselves.”
Uledi, 75, is a fourth-generation descendant of the freed slaves of the 19th century.
In 1845-50, groups of slaves had been freed by British Royal navy forces patrolling the Indian Ocean. The slaves were onboard Arab merchant ships en route to Zanzibar to be sold off in the slave market there.
They were then settled in Mombasa’s north mainland on a property that had been bought from the Arab rulers of the coast by the British navy and the Church Missionary Society.
The freed slaves comprised men who had been captured from as far as Nyasaland (Malawi), the Rhodesia’s (Zambia and Zimbabwe), Mozambique and Tanganyika (mainland Tanzania).
“When the British navy brought them here, they were taken in by the CMS, and it was in this whole area where our forefathers first lived,” Uledi said with a sweeping hand gesture.
His hand waves over areas around Kengeleni and eastwards towards Mkomani, northwards around the Kongowea market, and westwards down to the shores of the Tudor creek.
The British not only taught them English and Kiswahili but also introduced them to Christianity and modern education.
Their assimilation to ‘white man’s’ education and religion happened just opposite the Kengeleni site, at what is today the ACK Emmanuel Church, which was itself completed in 1889.
In those days over 150 years ago, it was just a makeshift structure, doubling both as church and school. And this explains the presence of the kengele.
THE LAND QUESTION
According to the community, Sir Bartle Frere of the British navy — from whom Frere Town got its name — had originally bought over 600 acres meant exclusively for their settlement. This land, it is claimed, covered the greater Nyali area, stretching up almost to Shanzu, and was referred to as Frere Town colony.
Fast-forward to between 1925 and 1930, the community was moved further northwards within the same land from the Kongowea-Mkomani central area tothe present-day Frere Town around Kisimani and VOK.
Additionally, from this period up to Independence and after, huge chunks of the original over 600 acres were grabbed by people in successive administrations, and now they are only left with 50 acres, they say.
The community has been demanding for their rights, including reclamation of the land in question because, as they put it, their population has been growing and there is nowhere else to go.
“Our community has no place to stay. Now we have to buy land yet it used to be there for us,” Uledi says.
The community’s secretary Jimmy Kitao added, “We even submitted a memorandum to the Mohammed Swazuri-led National Land Commission, but there has been no response. We know this is a very sensitive matter but we will not tire fighting for our rights.”
Secondly, the Frere Town people also want full recognition by the state. Despite their long pre-Independence history in Kenya, it has been ever difficult for their members to acquire national IDs on account of their native ethnic identities.
“Getting IDs continues to be a problem for us. If we identify ourselves as Nyasa people during registration, we are told there is no such community,” the chairperson says.
This situation has compelled many of them to assume Mijikenda identities so as to get IDs.
“Many have to cite their maternal lineages to get IDs. Our forefathers married the Mijikendas because they didn’t come with their women, and now for our people to be registered, they have to say they are Mijikenda,” Uledi says.
“We want the government to declare us the 45th tribe since we have a strong claim compared to even the Makondes.”
SLAVERY HISTORY IN SCHOOLS
Speaking during a recent workshop in Mombasa, history experts highlighted the significance of understanding the legacy of slavery in Kenya. They were addressing the subject of ‘Dissemination of Content on the Subject of Slavery in Africa in the 21st Century’.
Dr Marie Pierre of the EU-funded Slafnet project said understanding the past equips current generations with the knowledge needed to address its challenges. Slafnet organised the forum in partnership with the National Museums of Kenya.
“We have interacted with the people of Frere Town, for instance, and they’ve explained to us how it is difficult for them to be descendants of slaves, even when they have contributed to building the Kenyan nation,” she said.
“So they feel their history is not recognised, and for the history to be known, it has to be taught in schools, including at universities.”
Patrick Abungu of NMK blamed the society’s ignorance of the slavery history on how it has been treated as a taboo topic, even when there is a need for sober and healthy dialogues to break the silence.
“We have the 44 tribes’ narrative in Kenya, and we wonder where the descendants of the slaves are. So if we talk about it and properly present it to the government, I believe we’ll be addressing key issues,” Abungu said.
At the Coast region, communities of slave descendants are also found in Takaungu and Rabai in Kilifi county, as well as Gazi and Shimoni in Kwale county.
Edited by Tom Jalio