Snorkel in Mombasa with Captain Wagna

Captain Wagna, the snorkeling king of Mombasa

Some people trot around the world just to see animals, or to ogle at old buildings, or to take photos of a ‘wow factor’ that has been photographed a billion times already. True, with me, I find myself going to places that have been talked about over and over again, which is why I went to Mombasa, but the one thing that lures me to travel to such places is the chance to stumble upon stories that have never been told before. Stories that can never be told because travel books are full of stuff like ‘the best hotels in Mombasa’, or ‘the top five places to visit in Kenya’. Stories like that of Captain Wagna, one of the millions of unknown faces who work in the background to make sure visitors enjoy their holidays.

The first time I met him was at the Backpackers Nirvana. In fact, the easiest way to get in touch with him and have him take you out for a day snorkeling would be through this humble hostel. He came in the evening because he heard there was a couple of guy who wanted to go out. He wore a cap, and his dreadlocks fell all over his shoulders. For a brief moment, I thought of Captain Jack Sparrow, for there was a stunning resemblance. Not in looks (otherwise this girl will murder me for suggesting that he is as handsome as Depp) but maybe it was the dreadlocks that made me think of that famous pirate.
A romantic sailing boat in the Indian ocean coast of Mombasa
A glassboat used for snorkeling in Mombasa

When we thought of snorkeling, we had two options. Get on a boat with a glass bottom and join a gang of other tourists in a kind of tour, or hire a traditional boat. We chose the latter. It is no fun snorkeling with a large glass between you and the fish. It’s much more romantic to get into the water and kiss the beauties under there. And certainly, sailing with the wind, the way it has been done for thousands of years, was much more exciting than in an engine propelled boat. Plus, the fun of hiring Wagna is that we could choose to have him for only a few hours, or the whole day, at the same price! What’s that for a bargain? We obviously picked the whole day, and man, it was thrilling just lolling around in the waves of the Indian ocean.

Wagna talks too much, a typical chatter box, but he was such fun that I enjoyed every word he spoke. Seeing that he liked to talk, and having a nose for a story, I started to dig a little into his past, and his story has haunted me ever since I met him. 
He has been the Captain of a little boat called Haleluya for over fifteen years now. He told me it’s called an angalewa, and many people in Mombasa seemed to refer it by that name, but I always thought of it as a dhow. He makes his money from tourists, both Kenyans and foreigners, who come to the coast to snorkel. He knows every inch of the marine park and will certainly take you to the best places you can see fish, even at high tide.
Captain Wagna’s boat in the marine park of Mombasa
His business thrived before 2007. He enjoyed a good life, and though belongs to the dominant tribe in the Mombasa area, the Giriyama, he had a Kikuyu wife and two children. The eldest is a girl, about thirteen now, and the other is a nine-year-old boy. He dreams of this boy one time ending up a boat captain like his dad. He was wealthy. He could afford to send his daughter to a private school, because many tourists fought over themselves to snorkel with him.
Having fun aboard the boat, Haleluya
“She was only after my wealth,” he told us, referring to his wife. We noticed the sudden change in the tone of his voice. A bitterness crept to the surface, and the smile that hitherto was permanently on his face vanished. Instead, he grimaced. He did not have to tell us what she put him through to know that their once happy marriage turned into a nightmare.
In December 2007, violence erupted in Kenya, following a disputed presidential elections. The tribal divisions in the country left a thousand people dead, and divided a family in Mombasa.
He is not clear on when exactly she left him, but during the height of the crisis, she was not settled. Many Kikuyu were afraid of their lives. There’s a stereotype in Kenya that the Kikuyu are thieves and money-hungry leeches, and so they were the target for ethnic cleansing in many parts of the country. I am not very familiar with why exactly the violence erupted, who started killing who, but it certainly destroyed the tourism industry.
All of a sudden, no one was hiring Wagna anymore. Within months, he was broke.
He pulled his daughter out of private school and put her in a poor public school. He moved from the nice house he was renting to one in the poorer suburbs of Mtwapa.
And his wife left him. “It was not just the violence,” he says. “If she was a good woman, she would have stayed when I ran broke. No one tried to kill her while she was here, so her claims that she is going back to her parents, months after the violence ended, is sheer lies. She saw there were no more tourists and so that I was broke and she decided to pack her bags and go. That Kikuyu leech!”
He has not replaced her yet. He is focusing on his children. You could tell that the wound she dealt him is deep. It might have been the seawater that got into his eyes, but for a brief second I thought he was crying.
Time does not heal, obviously, but he has tries his best to forget her. He does drink a little more than he used to, he accepts it, but well, most of the time there is no work and he sits idle with his mates in the shores of Mtwapa. The brokenness drove him into selling off his boat, and so now he has to work for hire. When he talks about it, you can see the pride in his eyes, as though he wants to say, “A captain like me should have my own boat!”
And he has not given up that dream. He is slowly saving to buy his boat back. On addition, rather than just having a boat, he wants to own his own set of floaters and snorkeling gear. Apparently, everything we were using, from the life jackets to the goggles, were borrowed or rented. Thus he was not making as much money as he used to before the chaos. But at least the tourists were coming back, until another tragedy struck. Terrorists. 
They attacked the country of its army’s involvement against the Al Shabab gang in Somalia. They kidnapped some tourists in Lamu island. Mombasa itself suffered a wave of terrorist bombings. Just a few weeks before we arrived, there had been riots in Mombasa town over the death of a sheik who was suspected to be a top terrorist sympathizer.
“The man is already dead,” Wagna said. The anger clear in his voice. “Why then riot? Why protest over the death of an evil man? If I can understand a riot over Mandela’s murder, but that of a terrorist? An evil man? This is why we Kenyans will always remain backward!”
Snorkeling in the marine park, Mombasa

We were there in September of 2012. It was supposed to be the peak season. It was supposed to be teaming with tourists. But there was hardly one in sight. On several occasions, we had the entire beach to ourselves, and in some occasions, Reiza was the only noticeably foreign person on the beach. The rest were locals. 
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Who Will Tell this Tale?

A few years back, I used to have a certain kind of anger against foreigners who came to Uganda (and by extension other ‘poor’ countries) to make films. “Who gives them the right to tell our stories?” me and other filmmakers/artists would ask ourselves in our silly workshops. “They are only going to misrepresent us.” “They only tell negative stories that stereotype us in pictures of poverty, sickness and war.”

The search for love, motivated me to tell Ranjana’s story. She is in the photo below, with greenish sari.

Then, I went to Nepal. It’s a story I’ve told over and over again and need not to repeat. When I told Nepalis about my intention, they asked; “You came all this way to tell that story?” Stories of inter-caste marriages are so commonplace. I could feel the bewilderment in the question mark.

A Newari bride. Did I have the right to tell her story?

Of course, I did not give them my actual motivation – that I was going through very bad times in my quest for a wife and was thus was searching for the meaning of love. They would have laughed at me. I gave them a more practical reason; human rights, that the film was my small contribution in the fight against caste-based oppression and racial discrimination.

This was not far from the truth, for while every artist has a personal motivation, which is often so stupid that they cannot mention it in public, he or she needs a practical and global reason to make a film. A motivation that will attract financing, for filmmaking is sadly not an art – not yet – it’s a very expensive hobby. It will only become art if, according to Jean-Luc Godard, the tools of making it become as cheap as pencil and paper.

Early last year, I attended the ESoDoc International workshop in Nairobi. I was surprised to find that two of the projects being pitched were based in Uganda. One had something to do with this new trend of voluntourism, which some refer to as poverty tours. The other was strangely very similar in theme to the one I made in Nepal. It involves illicit sex and love. It is about a group of women who were shipped off to an island called akampene, or Punishment Island, and abandoned there to die. Why? Because they got pregnant outside marriage.

One of these women, who I will call Martha (don’t ask me why), was very young when her uncle impregnated her. She tried to hide the pregnancy, but well, you cannot hide a balloon. Her brother got furious. He did not believe her story of incest, rape and defilement. He dragged her into a boat, rowed off to the island and abandoned her there. It is a very tiny island where nothing grows, so she was bound to starve to death. But she managed to escape. She killed the baby when she delivered it.

An artist’s impression of the island. Drawing by Comfort Abemigisha

Very sad story. Very dramatic. I would have loved to make this documentary. And when I asked Laura, the Italian filmmaker currently fundraising to make this film, why she was doing it, she gave me the global motivation. Women’s rights. (It is not surprising that her crew is almost entirely female.) In her own words, “…women discrimination is something that needs to be spoken out…The story of Akampene is one of the million stories of women in trouble around the world and it is so strong that it can address the issue effectively. In some places the difficulties in giving birth, raising and educating a child or just being a woman are often so huge and unbearable that they need to be discussed, as they raise important questions about the life of each of us.” For lack of space, she left out relating it to the life of thousands of girls in Uganda today, who end up with unwanted pregnancies, sometimes after someone close to them – an older relative, a teacher, a neighbor – lures them into sex. I do know for sure that it is part of her outreach plan.

But while she was telling us about her project, I could not help thinking at the back of my head “Oh no, not another foreigner coming to tell our story!” Yet, a bolt of lightning struck me. And I thought to myself – ‘Wait a minute. You were a foreigner in Nepal telling Nepali stories!’ I remember making some Nepalis mad with my blog posts, and my choice of topic. I got a few hate mail on facebook. And sitting there with Laura in that small dark café in Nairobi, drinking coffee, I came to realize that it does not matter who tells the story. What matters is the motivation.

So I started to dig in to get to the very bottom of what was driving her to travel all the way from Italy to a remote village in Uganda.

“I feel very attracted to the island,” Laura told me. “Deep inside I have always been an animist, not as much as a religion, but I have always related both to objects and places as if they had a soul. This probably started in my childhood. I was very shy, with a vivid imagination and lots of time spent by myself.”

She paused. I waited, using the best trick I have learnt while interviewing characters. Silence. A slight nod of encouragement. If you say anything, you might break their chain of thought, and I could see that Laura had something heavy in her. Fortunately, none of the other three people with us on that table said anything, for they too could feel she was on the verge of telling something from deep down in her heart. She took a long sip of the coffee, and then she said, in so soft a voice that I almost did not hear it.

“I grew up with my grannies…. My parents were divorced.” If it were a movie scene, I would have faded out every other sound in the café. Her face would have been sharply in focus, while the people in the background would be blurred to arty images. For she was struggling to tell what was driving her to make the film. I could not make sense of it, or join the dots from the divorce of her parents to pregnant women left in an island to die. I doubt that she could make sense of it as well, for sometimes the artist never really puts a finger on the thing compelling her to do what she is doing.

“When I had nightmares,” she went on, “my wardrobe would appear.” Oh oh, I thought, as I took a sip of the coffee, nightmares and wardrobes? But I kept silent, and she continued. “The wardrobe – it was the container of my darkest feelings. When I first saw the island, it worked for me as my wardrobe.”

Now I was slowly joining the dots. Parents divorced. Nightmares. Wardrobe. Island. It started to make some sense, until she said, “When I was much younger, I was in a violent relationship.”

She did not say anything more, and I did not press her, for the cameras were not rolling. She excused herself to go to the bathroom, and I knew she was going to cry. When she had gone, Philline, a German who was with us, said, “Why do you ask such things Dilman? Now look what you have done to her. You are so mean!”

I know I’m mean. I’m sorry I asked those questions. I did not know it would open a wound. But I simply had to know. Later on, when she was back in Italy, she sent me an email (don’t call me mean! I did not send her a questionnaire! She did it on her own volition), I think she wanted to say more, or to clarify what she tried to tell me in that small dark café in Nairobi. One line from that email prompted me to write this article. She said, “I am sure that what made me really put so much work into trying to make this film, is the wardrobe-island link, even if this may make sense only to me… But I was in that wardrobe before I was in a violent relationship.”

Well, good luck to you Laura. I cannot wait to see your film made. There is a strong undercurrent of emotion in the effort, and it’s such a force that results in masterpieces.

Laura poses for a photo with some of her characters.

PS: If you wish to contribute to her film, visit

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