Kennedy Mwale, 32, pictured, is a freelance tour guide in Mombasa’s old port, a claustrophobic melange of Arab and Portuguese architecture with one small stone pier. A week ago Monday, three small cargo ships were tied to the pier. Scores of shirtless stevedores lugged bags of cement and tossed them into the ships’ holds. The stevedores might earn a couple dollars for hours of hot, back-breaking work. That’s just enough to survive in Mombasa. Mwale, by comparison, earns up to $15 for an hour tour.
Five years ago, Mwale escaped Mombasa’s maritime economy. He had been a fisherman, plying the waters as far north as the Somali borderland in search of tuna and other big fish. But with piracy taking root in lawless Somalia, fishing and sea trade were becoming riskier and less profitable by the day for the small operators. One of the final straws for Mwale was a close call, in 2002, with a band of 14 pirates that sneaked up on the 11-man refrigerator ship where Mwale was the chief engineer. (The reefer ships follow behind the fishing boats to store fresh catches.)
They came at night, as the ship was anchored near Mdoa island, surprising the sleeping crew and their one Somali bodyguard. When the pirates failed to wrestle away the guard’s rifle, a standoff ensued. The pirates demanded the crew’s money and possessions, plus all the diesel fuel stored on deck — and wanted the ship sailed to the Somali port of Kismayo. If the crew didn’t comply, the pirates would start killing people, they said. The crew coughed up all their cash — just a few dollars for most, but around $700 in the case of the ship owner’s secretary — and handed over possessions including a new boom box stereo. But the captain refused to give up the diesel or to sail to Kismayo. He would not allow the ship to enter in to captivity, nor strand it at sea. The captain had only as much leverage as was afforded by his one armed guard, but it was enough. The pirates compromised. They agreed to go to Mdoa and continue negotiations.
That apparently was a clever bit of strategizing on the captain’s part, for he had called at Mdoa earlier, seeking the ruling committee’s permission to fish Somali waters. The committee had endorsed the expedition. And when the pirates rolled in with Mwale and his shipmates in tow, the committee immediately branded the captors criminals and had the local militia seize their weapons and return everything they’d stolen. They gave back the boom box, but denied taking anything else. The penniless Kenyans now were free to sail home.
This story has a happy-ish ending, but for Mwale, it was another near-miss in a career full of them. Every day the arguments mounted against working at sea. Already, three of his friends had been killed by sharks. And with piracy making profitable fishing a dicey venture, Mwale soon decided he’d had enough. He went ashore, for good, and for five years was unemployed on Mombasa’s sweltering streets.
Today, as a tour guide, he survives, and surely does better than many of the city’s 700,000 residents. Not that freelancing for curious tourists is an easy way to make a living: it’s just a Hell of a lot safer than grappling with Somali pirates.