Demola Ojo Thisday Newspapers
Lying off the southern Indian Ocean coast of Kenya next to Shimoni, Wasini Island is a sparsely, populated and undeveloped island. There are less than 2,000 inhabitants living, on the island and there are no roads; just paths meandering through the bush. It is not out of place to come across cows grazing under the watchful eye of a herder, Kenya’s power grid does not extend here so there is no electricity. However this coral island was a site of early Swahili civilisation and is occupied by an indigenous group of Bantu-speaking people. Their history includes invasion and settlement of Arabs from the Persian Gulf states, and from the island of Zanzibar, further south. Wasini Island and Shimoni were part of the slave trade driven by the sultanates of the Middle East approximately between the 16th and 19th centuries. African slaves ended up as sailors in Persia, pearl divers in the Gulf, soldiers in the Omani army and workers on the salt pans of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).
Arab traders began to settle among the Africans of the coast, resulting in the emergence of the people and culture known as Swahili. In the second half of the 18th century, the slave trade expanded and became more organised. There was also a huge demand for ivory, and slaves were used as porters to carry it. Wasini Island is about 10 kilometres from Kenya’s Kisite-Mvunguti Marine National Park. The park annually attracts tens of thousands of overseas and local tourists and the attendant cash inflow. From Wasini Island, it is obvious that the impact of proceeds accruing a few kilometres away is felt in Nairobi and other urban areas of Kenya but not on this historical island. The inhabitants of Wasini Island have taken matters into their own hands. Women groups on the island established a nature walk through the beautiful coral gardens, Wasini’s most attractive feature. The boardwalk is a raised looped wooden platform stretching over 500 metres within the island’s beautiful fossil coral gardens and mangrove vegetation. During high-tide the seawater covers these coral gardens, above which visitors are guided along the boardwalk. Visitors to Wasini Island also have a chance to purchase souvenirs at the group’s curio shop and also at the Zawadi boutique at the Charlie Claws restaurant.
Proceeds help needy Wasini students. On the northern end there is a rudimentary orphanage that benefits too. Fishing is a main subsistent occupation on Wasini Island. There are also several sports fishing vessels which pass into the Pemba Channel – a fishing ground famous for Kenya, All Africa and World IGFA fishing records. The effort of the women on Wasini Island means tourism is a growing source of income. The serenity of the massive coral garden on Wasini Island is magical. The truly amazing part is that it disappears completely during high tide and is devoid of water at low tide. Walking tours of Wasini Island have now become part of tourist packages that include the Kisite Marine ParK and Shimoni. The boardwalk built by the women meanders through the ancient dead coral. At low tide the coral appears like giant rocks scattered on the ground. Corals are made by small invertebrates that look like flowers. These animals make tubes and shells to live in. They secrete material almost a hard as concrete. These are called exoskeletons. This .part of the animal is dead. The rest of the animal, the fleshy part is living. When the animal dies, the hard part is left, and this is what is referred to as coral. Baby animals will attach to this dead part, and as they build shells the coral grows bigger forming reefs.
Generally speaking, coral reefs are some of the most ecologically rich inhabitants on Earth, supporting 25 percent of marine life in less than one per cent of the ocean environment. They’re a first line of defense for coastal communities against devastating storm surges. In many small island nations, reefs are the backbone of the local tourism and subsistence fishing industries. It matters little that the corals on Wasini Island are dead. They are still beautiful and through the efforts of the women, they help the living.