Mombasa slumbered under a sliver of a moon, the eastern monsoons blowing a warm wind across the waters. The beaches were empty save the dhows, the baharia that sailed them either gone to their homes in the stone town or country town or sleeping below their decks. The stone warehouses bordering the beach landings were empty as well, all save one small warehouse near the water’s edge. In a cramped room on the second floor a wax candle burn on a writing table, illuminating the space with its wavering light. A heavy set man sat at the table, reading numbers scribbled on the yellowed pages of his journal. He turned the pages with one hand while scratching his bearded chin with the other.
Changa closed the journal then leaned back, raising his chair onto the back legs.
“Belay, you taught me many things, but not everything,” he whispered.
The day Changa learned his mentor Belay had bequeath his shipping business to the young BaKonga was a joyous day. Never before had a Swahili merchant done such a thing. It was well known among the other merchants that Belay favored Changa and treated him as a son. But to deny his blood sons the business for a non-Swahili was unheard of.
Changa’s joy soon became worry. Many of Belay’s old business partners were not happy with his choice and refused to do business with Changa. He still retained the ivory trade, but other business disappeared. He could barely pay his men and his bills, let alone afford the basic necessities for himself. Belay’s true sons circled him like scavengers, ready to pounce in and take the business if he failed. Changa was determined not to do so.
Still, he could not continue as he was doing. He needed to find new customers and he needed to find a new source of revenue. Creditors were out of the question.
Changa pulled open the desk drawer then removed a map, spreading it on the table. It was a map of the coast with each Swahili city-state marked. His eyes rested on one particular island to the south, close to the mainland city of Sofala and the Kilwa Sultanates.
“Kilwa Malikiya,” Changa said. “Could you be the answer to my troubles?”
Belay had talked often of the island. The legend said it was one of the few Swahili cities ruled by a woman, her name lost in the annals of time. It was said that she was the first to trade with the Benematapa, gathering a vast treasure of gold and ivory. After the mysterious queen died her son gained control of the island. His reign lasted only ten years. The people of Kilwa Malikiya abruptly abandoned their island, founding the cities that now made up the Kilwa Sultanate. No one knew why they left, but the rumor was that they left all their possessions behind.
Changa took out his instruments, confirming the route to the island. Belay’s map was the only map that revealed the location of the island. It was an heirloom passed down through his family and the last item the old merchant gave to Changa before his death.
Changa yawned. The night was finally getting to him. He would sleep, his mind finally made up. In the morning they would sail for Kilwa Malikiya.
Changa met his crews with the sunrise. The mabaharia went about their normal maintenance duties, with Yusef yelling at them every step of the way.
“Yusef!” Changa called out. “Gather the men.”
Yusef waved then hurried about as fast as his large bulk would allow. Moments later the men stood before Changa, curious looks gracing their faces.
“I don’t have to tell you that my business has not been well,” Changa said. “Many of Belay’s friends have chosen not to do business with me. Because of this I must forge new relationships. But that does not help us now. The dhows must be maintained and we all must eat.”
“What must we do, Kibwana?” Yusef said. “We will starve before we leave you.”
The looks on the others faces told Changa that they did not agree with his bulky friend.
“There is a place that may hold the answer to our dilemma,” Changa said. “Kilwa Malikiya.”
One of the baharia stepped forward, a short man as broad as he was tall.
“What’s on your mind, Niko?” Changa asked.
“Every man here has heard of Kilwa Malikiya, bwana,” he said. “It is not real. It is a myth.”
Changa reached into his bag then took out Belay’s map.
“I was given this map by Bwana Belay before he died. It is a map that shows the location of Kilwa Malikiya. I plotted a route to the island last night.”
The men gathered around him, staring at the map. Niko shook his head.
“Many maps are wrong, bwana,” he said. “Just because this one shows the island does not mean it exists.”
Changa nodded as he rolled up the map. “I’m not asking anyone to come with me. I plan to set sail this afternoon. I would love to have my crew around me, but I will not ask you to risk your lives on a safari that may not bear fruit. Each man makes his own decision.”
“They say other things about Kilwa Milikiya as well, bwana,” Niko said.
“If you believe the city is a myth, why would believe anything else said about it?” Changa asked.
“I am with you kibwana!” Yusef announced.
Changa grinned. “Thank you, Yusef.”
One by one the baharia joined Changa and Yusef. Soon only Niko stood opposite them.
“I can’t,” he said. “I will not follow a myth.”
Changa approached Niko then placed a friendly hand on his shoulder.
“I understand, Niko. Go be with your family. There will be a place for you with my crew when we return.”
“I hope that you do,” Niko said.
Niko walked away, peering back at the others until he merged into the Mombasa crowds.
“Yusef, you will come with me to the market. We must gather supplies for the journey,” Changa said.
“The rest of you prepare the dhow. We set sail as soon as Yusef and I return.”
Changa visited his counting room before they visited the market. He opened his chest then frowned. There was enough for supplies to take them to and from the island. If there was no treasure on Kilwa Malikiya he would be ruined.
Yusef entered the room.
“Kibwana, are you ready?” he said.
Changa closed the chest then lifted it.
“Yes, Yusef. I’m ready.”