Land (Jan 2023)

The Element of Water in the Built Environment on the Precolonial Kenya Coast

  • Monika Baumanova

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 12, no. 1
p. 157


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With increasing urbanisation, understanding the variety of historical experience with water in the urban context becomes all the more relevant. Apart from representing an economic and environmental necessity, the physical and sensory access to freshwater is universally understood as socially desirable, pleasing and valued. The history of the East African coast is especially relevant as water scarcity is not a modern phenomenon in the region—in fact, precolonial towns situated on the oceanfront flourished in relatively arid environments too. This paper presents the insights achieved with a 3D scanning survey of the preserved heritage in the now-deserted town of Jumba la Mtwana, located 20 km north of Mombasa, Kenya. Although all of the buildings are partially collapsed, various wells, cisterns and reservoirs have been documented. Considering this archaeological site and other examples of (pre)colonial Swahili towns, this paper adopts multidisciplinary perspectives in analysing and interpreting the distribution of constructed features associated with water, with particular focus on their design, density and spatial context, as well as social and sensory connotations. Its results highlight the socio-spatial role of the element of water in the precolonial built environment, which may be contrasted with later periods and potentially carry broader implications for current urban development.