Of growing Up in Mombasa

Nyama! Nyama! Nyama!” Those words would put cheer in the air. All the kids would gather in attention and respond, “nyama,” in giggles, waiting to see who’d be first to mess up. The rules of the game were simple; jump at the mention of every type of meat one can eat. Meaning you’d lose if you jumped at mentions such as snake, bat or anything likely to cause a global pandemic. I think our world be a much saner place if we exported some of our kiddy games out there. *cough* China.

Childhood is one of those subjects one needs to revisit over and over, study it to better grasp how we turned into the people we are. Especially when growing up in such a diverse and multi-cultural place like the Coast of Kenya. Reminiscing my days growing up here, of most I remember the outbursts of laughter in our fits of passion, echoing through every corner of our noisy streets. Back then, staying indoors was a punishment mainly due to the lack of options. When our friends would come over and ask us to go play with them and we told them “mamangu ankataa” they’d be heartbroken, like what a monster your mom is. Staying indoors either meant playing some board games, card games, scrolling through the select number of local TV channels, watch a movie from the VCRs you owned, that is if you owned a VCR or a T.V for that matter. Unlike kids these days, we didn’t have the internet and the type of phones our parents owned were over-overs. The only time we used them was when we pretended to call our friends. We, therefore, lived for nothing but excuses to be outside, sometimes turning what was meant to be a short trip to the shop to playtime and to fore-shadow, that would always end in tears. 1. You either reached home late with what you were sent for, which was highly unlikely. 2. You reached home late having forgotten what you were sent, which meant you’d have to rush back to the store while your parents arranged for the beating you’d receive. 3. You found your way home having lost the money and in this case you were crying before you got home. But we grew up, the games that sometimes brought us punishment moulded us without us even knowing it.

Games weren’t just games you know. “Cha kimama” which the boys would outgrow after their first years was secretly preparing us to be responsible adults. That was before we knew adulting for the scam it was. I’m guessing that’s the deception of childhood; thinking the adults have all the freedom but in truth, a child is the freest being there is. We enjoyed the chores and the responsibilities acting like we had households to manage, playing different family storylines and boy! did we have the imagination for it! The girls played lengalenga with sock-balls the size of tennis ones, running against it being thrown by two other girls taking care not to be hit by it. There were other creative renditions of that with uki being one of the famous ones where you were safe in any of the four circles. They also had blada; a jumping game, Kamba; skip rope. These were all excuses to get us into fitness. Kode taught our girls multi-tasking, precision, timing and budgeting. Then the boys played gololi; marbles, famous games from it being kilinzi, kishimo, kiboma, kishimo boxi, all target practice games, perhaps a reminder of our hunter-gatherer days.  Kibe was hide and seek and the gangsters from us would just go home in between the game giving people a hard time looking for them. That’s how we spotted criminals from earlier on. Maybe it also taught us that being visible might not always be the best choice. There was also a rendition of it with ‘kick the bottle’. When the seeker finds you, he was supposed to run back and hit a bottle with a stick 3 times saying your name; like Hassan 1, 2,3 or chapochapochapo. The goal was to do that for everyone before one of the hiding parties picked up the bottle, saving the game, or as we called it “kuokoa mchezo” and the seeker would have to go at it again. Oh, such awful fun times. That was not the only saviour game. I bet everyone else knows chakochako, which is the classic game of tag. We had a coastal rendition of that called  Mbanuo, and when tagged you were supposed to incline your hand to a wall and the only way to get back into the game was when someone from the game passed through the bridge you formed with your hands while he who was ‘it’ wasn’t watching. Our games being communal lead to our lives being communal which meant always coming to each other’s rescues in their trying times, lending a hand here and there and opening us up to receiving help. This might be just the idealist in me trying to give meaning to what was basic fun and games, especially because a lot of games involved a degree of violence; the maji ya ndimu, tule wali polepole, the sere 1 2, all the karata games, would only end when one of us began crying but I’d argue the wisdom behind that was that from a young age, these games were teaching us to be quick-witted and just not be stupid or else people take advantage. And later, not to take things to heart because the following day, we’d be back in the same spot we cried, trying to change the narrative; by beating somebody else. That’s the root of our thick skin. And look how great we turned out.

The culture of games transcended our streets and was big in schools too; break times and P.E being the highlight of our days. Magurumati; ukuti ukuti; statue; napeleka barua, simba, mstatili; there was no shortage of entertainment in the growth of a kid in Mombasa. And more than entertainment it cultivated talent, making great goalkeepers out of the 2 fat boys who by rule of thumb had to play in that position. Oh my God! we had a childhood.

When the weather didn’t allow us to play, we sat in circles, we told stories; hadithi and great orators were born out of that. Similarly, vitendawili and mafumbo gave rise to great thinkers.

The people we are can ultimately be traced back to the remnants of these seeds lain in our childhoods or the lack thereof. Looking at this new generation raised on screens, who see the outdoors as punishment, I wonder what they’ll remember from their childhoods if they don’t go outside and do things worth remembering. Or maybe they won’t have to because their lack of social skills will do away the need for socializing in the future. Such a pity. As parents, future parents and those who remember, perhaps it’s up to us to not let these games die; bridge the disconnect this generation has with the outdoors. Bring back the old fashioned Mombasa childhood.

Childhood, Coastal Kenya, Games, Mombasa

Hassan Kassim

Hassan Kassim is a Mombasa-based Creative non-fiction writer, recently longlisted for the Toyin Falola prize, blogger and translator of Kiswahili work. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa and the European Union(E.U), and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management. Hassan writes about the ill-documented Communities of Coastal Kenya. His work has appeared in Writers Space Africa; his 2 non-fiction stories published in the anthology 'Twaweza,' a collaborative effort of 12 African writers on the African identity and set to appear in the forthcoming anthology for the Toyin Falola prize.


  • Wow Hassan mashaAllah! This is so apt for the times we live in. Just yesterday I was thinking of kode and blada and how the elderly aunties disapproved of us girls playing the latter! Kudos, Hassan, this was a wonderful trip down memory lane for me, thank you for the experience!

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Hassan Kassim is a Kenyan-based Creative non-fiction writer, blogger and translator of Kiswahili works with over 2 years of experience. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa, and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management.


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