It is an extraordinary experience to arrive at Mikindani at the end of a long, bumpy and extremely dusty drive from Kilwa or Dar es Salaam. After mile upon mile of rural distances with often no sign of human habitation, (with exception to the rows of shops and restaurants in the efficient but rather characterless town of Lindi), the final bend in the road that reveals Mikindani town can seem to be a fairytale encounter. Nestling between mountains and sea on a large circular natural lagoon, this tiny town has the historic atmosphere of quiet quaint that attracts visitors to tiny villages in the English Cotwolds or Italian hilltops in Umbria. The winding streets are flanked with a hotchpotch combination of thatch and mud, or stone work with balconies and carved wooden doors from the Arabic and colonial days. It is not as ancient as Kilwa Kisiwani, and was never as important as Bagamoyo, and it has experienced a similar sudden downfall of fortune that changed it from a thriving port town to a quiet backwater almost overnight. But over the years Mikindani has received small doses of much-needed nurture that have kept the profile and character of the town distinct.
As with most of the port towns along the coast Mikindani suffered a succession of rising and falling fortunes with the turning tides of trade. Its perfectly protected bay provided naturally sheltered anchorage and it was the closest seaport for trade caravans coming from Lake Nyasa, and from Zimbabwe, Zambia and present day Congo. Arab trade and settlement at Mikindani is thought to extend from the 9th century through to mid-19th, evidenced by some remains of ruined mosques and graves, although there was previously a settlement of Makonde from Mozambique at Mvita, to the north west aspect of the lagoon where some interesting tombs with carved plaster decorations with porcelain bowls inset can still be seen. By the late 15th century trade from Mikindani was traced through Zambia and Malawi as far as Zaire and Angola. Ivory, tortoiseshell, animal skins and copper were exported and manufactured goods such as clothes and weaponry were brought in. Demand for the export goods lapsed in the early 16th century with the disruptive activities of the Portuguese all along the coast, but picked up again in the middle of that century when the whole coastal region came under the jurisdiction of the sultan of Zanzibar, and slave trading became better business. But trade continued to fluctuate until the next boost in business occurred around the 1850s, when Arab trading peaked once more and this little southern town became a major trading centre. If you were to arrive in Mikindani at this time, two centuries ago, you would have encountered a busy port town settlement over a spectacular ocean lagoon. Most of Mikindani town as it stands today dates from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries after it regained prominence as a trading centre for Arab dhows purchasing ivory and slaves. Many of the ruins seen in the old town were homes or trading posts of these first foreign traders distinguished by their carved doorways and flat roofs, while wealthier merchants built themselves two storey houses with intricate balconies above their shop front below. Mikindani then came to the attention of the Europeans towards the end of the 19th century when Dr David Livingstone recorded his stay here early in 1866 before embarking on his final expedition inland, and just a couple of decades later the town became subject to German Colonial rule. Livingstone’s double storey house with superbly carved wooden doorways was renovated by the ministry of antiquities in 1981, when a commemorative plaque was added and an unprepossessing corrugated iron roof. The Germans made Mikindani the District HQ, and constructed a number of impressive two storey coral rag houses with fretwork balconies on the upper level, and some of their more elaborate constructions have recently been subject to extensive restoration work. The old German Boma sits high on the hillside overlooking the town and bay with 1895, the date of its completion, inscribed over the door. It was designed as fortress, (‘boma’ is the swahili for fort), but included an administration office and an officers’ residence and mess that included the luxury of a tennis court on the Eastern side. It later became a police station, but was abandoned during the 1960s and fell into disrepair. The Boma has recently undergone extensive and stunning restoration at the hands of an interesting new charity called Trade Aid, who are working to develop the local potential for eco-tourism in Mikindani. The German colonial government also renovated and rebuilt the old 19th century slave market with heavy classically styled coral columns and looping open arches to convert it into a public market close to the waterfront to commemorate the slaves who were shipped from here. This has recently undergone a colourful restoration, also masterminded by Trade Aid, who have filled in the open arches and painted the exterior. Nearby, the Old Prison on the waterfront (near the main bus stop) is in a very poor state of ruin after being bombarded in World War I and could do with some similar attention.
The first colonial government implemented large scale farming schemes for crops such as sisal, rubber, coconut and oilseed, but as business boomed and the trade ships grew larger it became necessary to build new deepwater port. Or to opt for a cheaper alternative, and move the port 10km south to Mtwara, where there was already a naturally deep channel to support the trade. This fell into the hands of the British colonial government, when they envisaged even greater farming schemes, such as the infamous Groundnut Scheme (see below), and moved the district headquarters from Mikindani to Mtwara after the First World War, so sealing the economic fate of Mikindani.
Nowadays the families of Mikindani rely mainly on fishing and traditional dug out boats and dhows are used to bring home a subsistence catch. But this tiny town still harbours a few surprises, and a walk around its historic centre reveals a smart and well-maintained Hindu temple at the heart of this otherwise Muslim population, and a number of interestingly carved wooden doors and doorframes similar to the ‘Zanzibari’ style. For a more modern addition to the town, find the ‘Hot Mik Bar’ a lively landscaped bar facing the bay beyond the mainroad, a good spot for all refreshments and a resoundingly popular satellite tv.
The story of Babu Banda and the German Treasure
The hillside behind the town is pleasantly wooded, and a not-too-steep track from behind the Old Boma leads up through sunlit glades to a superb viewpoint and the site of a rather unusual industrious task. This is the domain of Babu Banda, a stringently built local witch doctor who has been subjected to a number of instructive dreams by ancestral and Arab spirits. The essence of these has been to tell him of German treasures buried at this summit behind the Boma, and for the past 8 months he has dogmatically undertaken the task of unearthing them. As he works his figure casts long shadows against the carefully dug wall of a crater-like hole about six metres deep, with just a thin bridge of solid earth running around the circumference before dropping off into a second previously abandoned crater beyond. He tells how seven treasure seekers had been here previously, but were plagued with dreams of an Arab instructing them to leave and finally frightened off or killed by a huge snake. Babu Banda also has dreams of the Arab, but is instead informed to dig seven paces from the biggest baobab tree, and he employs magic to keep the snake away. His treasure so far includes an immaculate bronze ½ kilogram weight, and he claims to have discovered a cache of guns, but has decided not to dig deeper around that site in case of disturbing unexploded arms. His dedication to unearthing the wealth of his dreams is impressively revealed when his simple spade is set to rest beside the cavernous depths he has carved into this red earth hillside. Meanwhile his family perch against the skyline, cooking ugali and sheltering under the snaking branches of the precariously rooted trees with the family rooster happily ensconced on Babu Banda’s wife’s head. They have promised that when they find the treasure the rooster come to know the cooking pot.