Mombasa man takes care of 300 stray cats even though townspeople think they are jinn
All photos courtesy of Sam Kisika
The superstitious inhabitants of Mombasa are terrified of Hussein Ahmed, the keeper of 300 stray cats considered to be evil spirits.
Colorful cats clowder in from Kenya Mombasa’s second largest city sneaks away from their shadow at a rescue center to a strange man who feeds them.
It’s almost lunchtime and the hungry and loud felines want something to eat from their keeper sitting in a chair under a large tree. They had spotted him arriving with a paper bag full of omen (a species of small freshwater fish with radiated fins).
Hussein Ahmed, 64, is called a wizard by superstitious locals for associating with the ugly cats. But he beams with admiration at the innocent felines he rescued from the city streets.
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The self-proclaimed baba paka in Swahili (roughly translated as “father of cats”) has been saving and caring for cats for decades.
Hussein developed a love for cats at the age of eight and his late father gave him two kittens in 1978 from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
“This [was] between 1988 and 1989, when I started taking care of many cats, feeding them Indian Ocean fish as a fisherman, ”says Hussein.
He is currently caring for over 300 cats at five rescue centers in Mombasa, the coastal city among Kenya’s top vacation destinations for local and international tourists. Mombasa, slightly damp and rejuvenating, is also the oldest urban center in the country with several historical monuments like the fortified Strong Jesus, built by the Portuguese, on the shores of the Indian Ocean. There are many posh five-star hotels, including Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort & Spa, and Serena Beach Resort & Spa strategically located near the shores of the ocean.
Hussein’s main cat rescue center, with over 150 felines, is located near Fort Jesus. He feels enraged when Mombasa cats are seen as jinn (a sort of evil mythical spirit that morphs into other creatures.)
“Have you ever spotted a cat that is a jinn in your life?” People who call these cats jinn are doing it out of lies and nonsense. These are the jinns and not these cats, ”Hussein furiously laments.
The superstition around cats as jinns arose from several tales in Mombasa related to witchcraft, where witches would turn felines into embodied humans to terrorize the inhabitants. Locals claim that sometimes scary cats make funny noises like baby and adult cries.
53-year-old resident Ms. Zubeda Pendo, when asked about Hussein and his cats, argues that he is a “bad person and cannot be trusted”.
“There is a mystery behind its association with cats. How can someone keep so many cats for nothing? And what is the reason behind this? she poses. She shakes her head curiously. “There is something he is hiding from us.
When asked if she has a cat at home, Zubeda notes that she doesn’t have one and swears not to keep one for fear of looking after a jinn.
“Mombasa cats are jinn. I don’t trust them, and Hussein should move out of Fort Jesus because his cats scare tourists away, ”she said.
Hussein does not take advantage of his catteries under any circumstances. However, he complained about some crooked locals who sometimes sneaked into his Fort Jesus cat rescue center with tourists while he was away, then demanded payment after claiming to be cat keepers.
A 32-year-old resident, Zuma Ismail, agrees with Zubeda to ask Hussein to move out because he and his friends are still panicking when they see him and the cats.
“I think Mombasa cats are jinn and Hussein should be moved to the outskirts of town,” Ismail says.
However, Ms Mimy Rashid, a 44-year-old resident, disagrees with the duo for asking Hussein to move on the basis of hearsay.
“If no one has ever had a bad experience with Hussein’s cats, then their rescue center shouldn’t be moved. He should continue to help these abandoned cats, ”says Mimy.
Hussein’s Fort Jesus Cattery Center has earned a nearby scene a name dubbed “Step ya PakaIn Swahili, which is loosely translated as “The Cat Scene” by commuters.
Although Mimy has a cat at home for her children, she confirms that the fears of the Mombasa felines are due to the belief of the jinn. She was a child when she first heard about the scary myths that cats turn into humans and vice versa.
“I must be afraid since it is the norm here. I’m often so scared when I see a cat at night because you can’t tell if it’s a real cat or an embodied human, ”she notes.
But Mimy perceives Hussein as a “good-hearted person” and a “good samaritan” who should be respected for cats. She asks that superstitious locals accusing Hussein of practicing witchcraft give her the benefit of the doubt.
Hussein rejects locals who link him to witchcraft by insisting that he feeds cats out of passion and love.
“I still don’t care what people say about me. Many stray cats are in great pain; they drink dirty water from the sewers, go without food and have no shelter. I will do everything to help them, ”he says.
Cats are fed a variety of diets such as milk, meat, and fish, among other foods. Hussein says he provides the felines with three meals a day without any help from anyone except two supporters who sometimes donate food.
“We people can beg each other for pennies for food when we’re starving, but what about those cats? Where can they go begging? he asks.
Hussein still faces the headache of treating sick cats because he cannot afford their medication, and the city does not have a single cat clinic. He notes that city administrators don’t care about cats.
“I have to give sick cats any medication, including Panadol (a common pain reliever, generally used in humans) because I don’t have the proper medication. There are no cat clinics like in Western countries. Go abroad and see how cherished such cats are, ”he says.
Hussein watches YouTube videos and marvels at how well others take care of cats.
When asked if he could distinguish all the cats in his care, Hussein laughed enthusiastically before revealing that he knew them by name. Cats meow unevenly as he calls out Malkia, Kiriku, Kuchu, among others from the clowder. He also states that cats know him and always run to him as soon as they spot him or hear his voice.
Hussein emphasizes that the love of cats is passed on in their families. Her late grandfather and father cherished cats alike. Just like his brothers and sisters, who sometimes help him take care of the felines in other rescue centers.
His immense love for cats drove him to give prominence to marriage and has no plans to get married or have children.
“Suppose I have a wife, have you seen me hanging out with cats?” Am I not near my wife? It is better that I am not married and have these cats. I am grateful to Allah, ”he remarks with a smile.