Inside Kenya’s Oldest Hotel
One day, officials from National Museums of Kenya came and nailed a wooden board outside the hotel with information detailing the activities and the history of the building. Later, Yusuf got more information about his building from an old book.Old Town still charms with its narrow streets, old buildings with ornately carved doors and souvenir shops full of treasures. Visitors marvel at the history that the 180-acre town carries.The hotel was particularly loved for its balconies with views of the sea. At that time, there was no building near it.
A sign board outside the building which host the 1st Hotel in Kenya at Old town area in Mombasa in this photo taken on 15th January 2019. The hotel began operations in 1901. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG
Nineteen years ago, Yusuf Abdallah bought a shabby building in Old Town Mombasa for a song. He did not know that it was the first hotel in Kenya, named Africa Hotel, and that it was built over 100 years ago. He ran his hotel business and then closed it to open up a museum.“When I bought this house it was very old. There were some tenants living here,” he says. It was not long before Yusuf discovered that his house carried secrets of business deals and negotiations made in the 20th century.One day, officials from National Museums of Kenya came and nailed a wooden board outside the hotel with information detailing the activities and the history of the building.Later, Yusuf got more information about his building from an old book.“One day I saw a young man selling an old book printed in 1908. It had a lot of pictures on the history and events that took place here,” he says.“I think the hotel must have been built by Indians. It was a simple one with 12 rooms and the ground floor was a lounge.”When I visited the building which now houses a school, an office, a private residence, I found a board on the wall which reads: “1st hotel in Kenya began operations in 1901. Visitors are invited inside to view the architecture plus a photo gallery that captures those times. Your payments or donations are for restorations.”
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Four years ago, the two-storey building was opened to tourists and Yusuf lives on the top floor.Old Town still charms with its narrow streets, old buildings with ornately carved doors and souvenir shops full of treasures. Visitors marvel at the history that the 180-acre town carries.The hotel was particularly loved for its balconies with views of the sea. At that time, there was no building near it.On the outside wall, there were two clenched upturn fists, probably to hold a notice board but those were knocked down in 1988.Africa Hotel hosted business travellers and government officials. Part of the history that is documented is guests’ complaints. The customers complained of how dirty the area was.Robert Foran, who later became the chief of police, said when he stayed there in 1904, “there was a smell of rancid ghee, curry and other offensive odours of unsanitary drains, earth closets, decaying fish and unwashed humanity.”At that time, there were two other hotels in Mombasa: the Grand and the Cecil.Africa Hotel was closed at one point after it was bought by Souza Junior and Diaz who turned it into a grocery and tailoring shop.During this period, the Portuguese and the German consuls were living nearby and the French consul lived at Dalal House.There was also another Africa hotel in Zanzibar, according to more information written on an adjacent board. From the history, Sir James Sadler Hayes, who was the governor of the East African British Protectorate from 1906 to 1909 said that the oldest hotel in Mombasa was in Vasco Da Gama street and in Zanzibar the first Africa hotel was established in 1888.After years of housing many people and businesses, Yusuf has left the building almost untouched. It still has a carved wooden balcony that is 118 years old.“On the first floor, the balcony is open with geometrical design but at the top floor it is closed with wooden shutters. The balcony is completely covered by the roof. Fine carved brackets support it; they reveal an Indian influence in the use of vegetal designs,” reads the board by National Museums of Kenya.All these history lives in Yusuf’s museum house. Inside the house are pictures of Mombasa in its old times. He says the house remains as it was with only small renovations.“The pillars are the same. The wood is the same,” he says.