Africa’s first underwater museum set to open in Kenya

An hour’s drive north of the Kenyan city of Mombasa, you will soon be able to find Africa’s first underwater museum, where scuba divers can explore shipwrecks that have been sitting on the ocean floor for up to 600 years.

It will span 137km of coastline, from Lamu in the north to Malindi further south.

The wrecks were discovered by a team of 22 Chinese and Kenyan archaeologists. The interest of the former stems from shipwrecks dating back to the Ming Dynasty that ruled China from 1368 to 1644 AD, during which period an almost mythical treasure fleet from China travelled the Indian Ocean. The vessels are thought to have been double the size of any other wooden boat at the time.

Although little evidence of the fleet remains, recent DNA tests in the area attest to stories of a handful of survivors from the wreck of a Chinese vessel.

Legend has it that the survivors killed a python after it attacked a village and so were allowed to stay and marry local women, whose descendants still live in the area.

Divers can also expect to see submerged artwork that highlights other aspects of the area’s maritime history, including the slave trade that blighted East Africa’s shores across the centuries.

Cesar Bita, a leading archaeologist on the project, said the museum would preserve important Portuguese and Arabic shipwrecks, one of which, a Portuguese wreck, will be a central point of the museum. The underwater displays will include iron ship-making tools and concrete artefacts.

“The museum, once fully operational, will also showcase and demonstrate the interaction between art and environmental science in a unique way,” Bita said. “A large part of the project also has to do with the sea environment in that part of Kenya.”

The East Africa coast already has an underwater hotel — located off Tanzania’s shores — and a second is planned for Mombasa.

But curating history underwater is novel development. Diving around shipwrecks is far from new, but re-charting their stories and journeys across the ocean only really began this millennium.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), has records of only 11 underwater museums in the world, most of them in North America and Asia. Bita said that another African underwater museum project is underway in Alexandria, Egypt. The head of Unesco, Audrey Azoulay, said South Africa, Angola, Senegal, Ghana and Morocco could also launch their own underwater museums.

In Kenya’s Kilifi County, where the museum is based, Governor Anderson Kingi said tourists were already beginning to visit the underwater site, which is partially operational.

“People are coming because it’s beautiful,” he said, adding, “The site has some of the rarest marine ecosystems in the world” and it is a bonus that tourists can now “witness many of the events that took place in the ancient world”.

The museum is expecting between 90 000 and 200 000 visitors a year, spurred by tourism from China as that country expands its cultural and economic interests in Africa – with a little help from some ancient local legends.

DISCLAIMER: This story was produced by Bird, a newsroom supported by #AfricaNoFilter, sponsored by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

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Gitonga Njeru
Charles Gitonga Njeru is a freelance reporter and writer in Nairobi.

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