the ghosts of Gede
Leafing through her guide book, Marni stumbled upon a description of the “eerie and hauntingly beautiful” ruins of Gede, which are hidden away in a strand of forest not too far from the beach house we had rented in Watamu. D also found a reference to the ruins in Bill Bryson’s African Diary, which he had coincidentally plucked from the well-stacked bookshelf at the house. Intrigued, we headed to Gede late one afternoon, as the ruins are rumored to be at their most striking when they are lit up by the descending sun.
The story of Gede is swathed in mystery. Based on the artefacts, such as Chinese Ming vases and Spanish scissors, engravings on tombs, and the style of its architecture, archaeologists estimate that Gede flourished between the 13th and 17th centuries, before being abruptly deserted by its residents. Yet, despite its location a mere 15km from the commercial hub of Malindi, this Swahili town apparently went unnoticed by the Portuguese, who ruled the Swahili coast for a hundred years during what was likely Gede’s prime. No mention of Gede can be found in the old Portuguese, Arabic, and Swahili writings and its existence was completely unknown until its sudden discovery in 1948. Since then, the site has acquired a sinister reputation among the local people, who attribute all manner of inexplicable occurrences to the ghosts of its former occupants.
We engaged the services of a local guide, who proved to be more amusing than informative. Kenyans will frequently use a pedantic tone, adopting a style of speech that is more apt for a kindergarten classroom than for a casual conversation between adults. “And this tree right here – this is a bao___,” our guide would say questioningly, pausing for a second before completing the word – “a baobab.” In particular, he thought we would be most impressed to see what he called “the Roman toilets.” He showed us no fewer than five of them, scattered throughout the compound, stopping each time to impress upon us their intricate use: “This one is for pee-pee. And this one is for…” Pause. “Ka-ka…or as we say in English, number one and number… two.”
The guide’s chatter aside, the ruins were definitely worth the visit. The forest has swallowed up much of Gede’s 45 acres in the three centuries since its inhabitants abandoned the town. The Swahili traders have given way to Sykes monkeys, which now run freely among the crumbling coral-rock houses. The faded engravings of what once were grandiose mosques and the sight of powerful trees snaking their roots through the crevices in the remaining walls give the impression of a real-life setting for an Indiana Jones film.
Photos c/o Marni