Preserving the Swahili arts

A travel through Kilifi County reveals the heart of the Swahili culture, the Kenyan coast encompasses of extraordinary fascinations ranging from the Indian Ocean, the ancient ruins, animal parks among other attractions; However, Kilifi has another, equally enchanting side, crammed at the coastline of Kikambala lays the Sultan Palace.

Sultan Palace, a modern fuse of Swahili-Arabic architecture is a Kenyan real estate owned by Jiangxi Xinyu Estate Development Company, it rests in the serene coast of Mombasa, a wonderful leisurely end to an active holiday.

The Palace has more than it meets the eye; the magnificent structure in Kikambala, Kilifi County comprises of villas, condos and beach houses etched meticulously to represent the ancient art of Swahili culture embracing architectural design. It was carefully crafted by the Swahili artists.
Swahili architects, whose skills date back as far as the early 18th Century, are celebrated globally for their intricately carved wooden doors, imposing entrance porches, shady courtyards, magnificent and elegant interiors, and beautiful decorative stucco plasterwork. The architectural design is most common in the coastal region and on Swahili buildings, like the mosques.

Islam being the dominant religion here structures like, windows, walls and heavy wooden doors are beautifully carved and inscribed with Arabic text captured from the Koran.
But the art has long been on its deathbed, the Swahili crafts have moved into a sharp decline driven by a shift in local tastes towards western styles through the adoption of foreign ideas, low level of craftsmanship training, decreasing number of craftsmen and the slowdown in tourism construction have been key contributors to the decline of the sector over the last 20 years, according to a study by the University of Nairobi, Craftsmanship in Kenyan Informal Construction.

It is in this backdrop that the Sultan Palace Development has deployed leading coastal craftsmen, a team of 12 young artisans to salvage their endangered crafts.

The selected artisans have been initiated to undergo intensive training, in partnership with two Swahili Cultural Centers which are based in Mombasa and Lamu in a bid to imprint Swahili designs and skills deep into the fabric of the new coastal development.
Furthermore they have opened new youth opportunities at the coast, this move by the developer’s comes as part of a strategic drive to create a unique East African coastal view.

 “The incorporation of this ancient craft is geared towards preserving the Swahili arts as well as creating a modern fusion of the Swahili Arabic architectural design, giving an authentic yet modern feel, and offering an intimate atmosphere, and seclusion with a sense of wellbeing,” said Sultan Palace Development General Manager, Liu Tiancai in a press statement.

The manager argues that the building techniques are ideally suited to the coastal climate and environment, naturally maintaining cool atmospheres during the hottest periods of the year. The creativity in the composition of the material being used in the building, which consists of calcium and white cement, is further ensuring an elegant finish.

“Drawing on Swahili artisans in the architectural design will ensure that no one element of the development’s function, comfort, and environmental friendliness are sacrificed, but instead are developed in harmony,” said Liu.
But the craftsmanship has suffered an acute decline in recent years, which has seen most home owners and developers move to western styles and techniques in their construction.

Mr. Said Swabu, a Swahili craftsman who is leading the 12 Swahili team on the Sultan project has previously worked on projects for instance Chase Bank Eastleigh, in Nairobi and the Sarova Hotel in Mombasa, and has equally had to supplement his own architectural craft income by making Swahili themed furniture, which he mainly sells to tourists who visit the country.

He accounts the decline of the Swahili art to the post-election violence which was a turning point for tourism in the country, as it saw hotels and resorts upgrading their amenities, lobbies and public areas. But it is the shift to western styles that has been the problem.

“We are slowly killing our own tourism sector as we are not incorporating our own cultures and styles into our developments hence most tourists visit the country only to find their own cultures. 
This beats the logic of them visiting the country,” said Mr. Said.

This change of culture has further seen skilled artisans reduced to poverty, depending on low paying jobs for survival, with many of the artisans that Mr. Said has trained now depend on other jobs, such as work as Matatu touts, while they await construction opportunities.

 “The Swahili craft is a skill that has been passed down through generations. I, however, am not planning to pass the skill to any of my seven sons at a time when the industry is dying,” he said.

Sultan Palace Beach Resort, the latest in the multinational’s property portfolio is a Sh.5bn development located on 43 acres of exquisite beachfront property geared towards creating a luxurious fun-filled holiday paradise.
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