Hippos play and sailors spend in sleepy, strategic Mombasa

This hot, sleepy, beach-fringed, and strategic port on Africa's east coast, with its touch of Arabic and Islamic atmosphere, just isn't the same these days. The cameras, crew-cuts, youth, binoculars, shorts, T-shirts, curiosity, distinctive accents, general cheerfulness -- and dollars -- of the United States Navy have gone: 6,600 men from the first aircraft-carrier battle group to call here for shore leave and refuelling since 1983 are now but a memory.

The Navy men from the carrier Constellation and five other Persian Gulf ships including the submarine Jacksonville swarmed all over Mombasa, crowding bars and hotels and taking trips as far north as the Amboseli game park to see such non-marine wildlife as elephant, lion, giraffe, and zebra.

They were not always well-informed: ``Say, is Nairobi a state or a city?'' an enlisted man asked me with the utmost gravity. But local officials reported, as their ships sailed early May 26, that they had generally been well-behaved.

Their departure caused grief to hotels and other establishments: each man spent an average of $150 on shore. Including massive amounts of provisions and fuel for the ships, the total contribution to the Kenyan economy topped $3 million.

Not bad for just five days in port.

The visit had more serious implications as well.

As a continent, Africa has remarkably few deep-water ports -- and even fewer in pro-Western, stable countries that the US Navy can or would want to use freely.

Yet both east and west coasts see tankers carrying oil around the Cape from the Middle East to Europe and the US. Other strategic interests for Washington and NATO capitals, as well as for Australia and New Zealand, are involved.

Down the entire east coast, Mombasa is the only port the US can breathe easily in, apart from the smaller Berbera in Somalia around the Horn on the Red Sea.

Looking south, Dar es Salaam is in a Tanzania ruled by independently-minded Julius Nyerere. Durban is in South Africa. Looking north, the Russians are in Ethiopia's Red Sea ports of Assab and and Massawa, and in the useful Dahlak Island.

On the west coast, Namibia and Angola are out of the question. Nigeria is under military rule and is economically unstable, and Dakar (Senegal) is small, too far north, and in the sphere of France.

But Mombasa is big, deep, and is in Kenya, a pro-Western, civilian-ruled African state with Western investment from the days when it was a British colony.

When asked, US officials play down Mombasa's reserve strategic usefulness to Washington, but other diplomats are in no doubt whatsoever.

Recently the US deepened the main approach channel to Mombasa harbor by blasting out an underwater reef at a cost of more than $3 million. ``It helped the Kenyans -- but it helps the West as well,'' one observer remarked. It allowed the battle group to anchor inside the harbor, though the Constellation itself stayed outside.

Attached to the US consulate in Mombasa are Navy personnel with recently expanded communications duties. The port is used by individual Navy ships for re-provisioning, even though battle group visits are relatively infrequent in deference to Kenyan sovereignty.

Mombasa is also the vital entry point for US famine-relief grain not only for northern Kenya but for landlocked Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Zaire as well.

So the battle group of the Constellation, the Jacksonville, the Crommelin, Worden, Camden, and the destroyer Fletcher didn't merely let its 6,600 men off the leash for a while. It showed the flag in a area crucial to US interests.

Then there is that which is oblivious to strategy and security: Sally. Sally opens her enormous jaws wide and gulps down two bottles of milk in quick succession.

She then snuffles up a large quantity of meal from the ground. Not content, she purposefully moves to meal scattered for her neighbors, shooes them away and eats most of that as well.

No one challenges her. A nine-year-old orphan, she weighs more than a ton. She is a hippopotamus, and she lives in great content in an unusual nature park on the main road leading from Mombasa to Tiwi.

She lives in fact in a 70 acre quarry from which one of the world's largest cement factories (one million tons a year) dug its limestone.

In 1971 the company -- Bamburi Cement, 74 percent controlled by Anglo-Swiss interests -- decided to reclaim and reforest the gashed earth when the quarry reached water level. It planted tall, feathery Casuarina trees to fix nitrogen and enrich the bare earth. It introduced another reclamatory force: the bright, black millipede which scurries on gleaming red legs, eating the ground cover and turning it into good compost.

Under the care of Swiss botanist Rene Holler the quarry blossomed, until today it bursts with eland, oryx, maribou storks, yellow weaverbirds, a crocodile farm, and a thriving fish farm which provides tilapia fish (said to be the kind brought to Jesus when he multiplied the loaves and the fishes) to local markets and hotels.

The entire quarry, open to visitors each afternoon, is now filled with trees and shrubs. Sally disports herself in a small, attractive lake. The factory now has plans to turn another spent quarry into a similar reserve.

The reserve is a remarkable example of reclamation, using available water, the casuarina, and the millipede to show that commercial development can leave something else behind other than blight.

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