art

Back in Kilifi

Drawings and words by Matt Cotten

During the pandemic, Matt Cotten reflected on his time in Kilifi. He was finally able to return in September 2022. Here is the before and after.

PART I March, 2021

Drawings from Kilifi, getting there, the landscape, the colors, the boats. 

First, a map. Kilifi sits on a creek midway between Mombasa and Malindi. There was earlier a ferry crossing for the coastal road and I can imagine the markets and shops that accumulate near ferry crossings played a role in the village. A bridge spanning the creek was opened in 1991 and probably triggered a lot of changes for the village. The Wellcome Trust has supported a research institute in Kilifi for 25 years with world class malaria, virology, vaccine and public health efforts. I am very lucky to have James Nokes and Charles Agoti and their team from Kilifi as colleagues, over the years I have visited them to discuss our work, analyze data, write papers and of course draw. 

For reference it is useful to include a drawing of the highest mountain in the country. Flying from Nairobi down to the coast you pass Kilimanjaro. If the weather is clear you might get a glimpse. Ask for a window seat on the right-hand side of the plane. I drew this with colored pencils during the flight, I only had a few minutes to see the mountain and then we flew into a cloud bank and I sat back and enjoyed the in-flight snack and beverage. 

On my first trip, travel to Mombasa was forbidden due to Al-Shabab issues so I flew in to the small airport in Malindi. The road to Kilifi was quiet, passing villages, mosques, along a forest and then palms, baobabs and harvested corn fields. The driver, John, had a sturdy Toyota HiAce van with a plastic tiger on the dashboard. I said “no tigers in Africa” and John said “ just one”.

Corn field with palm and baobab trees. I hadn’t seen this combination before. The corn had already been harvested. You can see that this was painted in Kilifi, the way the pigment dried in the warm moist air coming off of the ocean.

Coming to Kilifi from the south you pass through a valley filled with huge baobabs. “Natural Hero” and “Better Simple Life” were slogans from the back of matatus we were following. I have more written down somewhere. One of my daughters is a poet and she liked these little statements on the back of vehicles so I tried to collect them for her. 

Another view of the baobab valley from another trip. James or Charles told me the place was called Komasa. Maybe 30 km south of Kilifi?

Earlier there was a ferry crossing for the coastal road and I can imagine the markets and shops that accumulate near ferry crossings played a role in the village. A bridge spanning the creek was opened in 1991 and probably triggered a lot of changes for the village.

Of course, you are right there on the eastern edge of Africa. The history, the stable trade networks with Arabia, India, further east, the small kingdoms each with a special valued commodity, spices, metals. And the space of the ocean, the light, sky, colors, an open window to other places. The Indian Ocean at Kilifi.

We visited Matsongoni, a small settlement north of Kilifi. Many of the virus samples that we had sequenced came from a household study run there, my collaborators were defining the details of virus transmission, who infected whom and this study gave important information. We knew from James’s and his group’s work on viral transmission that the household was an important unit, this was made very clear from the landscape and the organization of the houses. 

The northern boundary of the district was defined by a beautiful quiet estuary, they told us the school children boarded a small ferry there to cross to the school on the other side.

“Small things can start us off in new ways of thinking, and I was started off by the postage stamps of our area. The British administration gave us beautiful stamps. These stamps depicted local scenes and local things; there was one called “Arab Dhow.” It was as though, in those stamps, a foreigner had said, “This is what is most striking about this place.” Without that stamp of the dhow I might have taken the dhows for granted.

From: V. S. Naipaul “A Bend in the River”

These aren’t dhows, but ngalawas, small dugout canoes with a lateen rigged sail and two outriggers. They had beautiful lines and gradients of colors on the sails. We were very lucky and always stayed in a lodge with beautiful views of the creek.

Beautiful also without sails. This is from the bridge and at high tide you can look down through the clear green water and see the shadows on the sandy creek bottom.

They also used small dugout canoes, the fisherman would set out early and I would meet them on my morning swim. I usually forgot my goggles so would swim with my eyes closed and then stop to look every once in awhile. Once I looked up and this squadron of dugouts was passing. Maybe the boats are called mtumbwi, but someone from Kilifi can correct me. Anyway I tried to swim quietly to not scare away the fish. Once they got to the right place the fisherman would stand and cast their nets.

I sat at breakfast one morning and drew the fishermen every 5 or 10 minutes.

I don’t know what to call these fish, but they seem to be always there, just off the end of the pier, usually late in the day. Long gossamer fins. 

You could climb to the terrace at the top of the biology building and get a nice view of the neighborhood, especially the road to a little restaurant called Mama Safi’s. I used to take breaks from assembling RSV genomes and go up there to draw. Thanks to Kevin Marsh and the architect who designed such a nice terrace.

We often ate at Mama Safi’s cafe. My Phan ordered the same thing each time: samaki and chapati chuma. I discovered githari and would order that and a few chapatis and coconut rice if it was available that day. 

Heading back to Europe, we took the newer southwest route to Mombasa. 

The construction seemed a bit brutal, they excavated soil to build the roadbed but left a very changed landscape. I probably exaggerate in the drawing but the houses left behind were a bit forlorn.

Let’s hope the virus is soon under control and we can travel again, it would be good to visit our colleagues in Kilifi again.


PART II September 2022

After 3 years of travel restrictions I made it back to Kilifi in September 2022. Here is my report.

The coastal landscape in Kenya was still beautiful. These are mostly shaky road drawings based on rapidly passing landscape, a bumpy ride and some imagination to complete the picture. I like the way the palms grow, bending away from the ocean winds. Students in uniforms walking home, strong light, dark shadows late in the day. 

It was nice to be back in landscape with baobabs. As traffic along the coast gets worse the drivers use alternate routes from the Mombasa airport to Kilifi. The route today was around the south west edge of the airport a short stretch past the shipyard and through some kind of truck graveyard and then inland. They had carved a new highway through the hills but fortunately left a few baobabs standing. 

More small coastal villages. I suppose the road follows earlier footpaths, winding through the hills. I was impatient drawing, the houses become colored blobs with shadows and peaked roofs, the palms a scrawl.

Someplace after Rabai. Probably a bit overworked but this drawing was on my table during a week of many zoom calls.

I had some free mornings and took the opportunity to walk to the Mnarani Ruins. It was beautiful, a site of the settlements from 1300-1700 AD. Ruins from two mosques, an impressive well, some cisterns, many tombs and a collection of baobabs. The site sits on a bluff overlooking the creek, with a steep climb that probably offered some protection against pirates. On the first visit I was accompanied by guides, I came back a second time alone to draw. The baobabs were large and had seen a lot of history. Scarred where bark had been removed for medicine, one tree had pegs inserted for climbing. There were instructions on one tree, make a wish, walk 7 times around the tree and depart without looking back. It worked, Charles got his fellowship (although he probably would have succeeded even without the baobab wish). 

More from Mnarani Ruins. Construction was from fossilised coral blocks, held together with lime generated from burnt fossilised coral. A very sturdy and durable construction method.

The view from Mnarani Ruins looking across to the former ferry site. The bridge across the creek was built in 1994, this must have been a big change for the village.

Draw your breakfast. The hotel terrace looks out over the creek and out to the Indian Ocean. I would usually meet the Warwick Modellers at breakfast, they were discussing various infectious disease patterns, I ate my French toast and then tried to draw the creek. 

I was lucky to stay at the Mnarani club and had a room with a view of the creek. I was supposed to be preparing three talks but I kept getting distracted by the fishermen.


It was lovely to be back in Kilifi, to meet with colleagues and collaborators after such a long absence. End of report.

I am a virologist and biochemist with a long interest in painting and how ink and pigments  interact with paper and water. I have been lucky to have lived and worked in a variety of locations and I have kept a drawing diary of what I have seen through the years. See more at Ebolatent.

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