Time to stop singing ‘Malaika’
I have a lifelong love affair with Kenya’s coastline. Our great ocean exerts an irresistible romantic pull on me. No matter how many other great seas I visit, I invariably return to the warmest embrace of them all: the Indian Ocean. Much of the money I make in this life is spent sitting at the feet of my oldest love.
As I spend my money at this most beautiful of places, I always sit and observe how others spend theirs. And of late, I have felt a great unease about our coast, its economy and its people. My most recent sojourn was not a pleasant time to be by Kenya’s sea. The empty hotels and beaches, the forlorn restaurants, the desperate-looking hawkers and taxi-drivers: all told the story of an industry that has once again been laid to waste as its customers desert it in fear.
If you walk along any of our popular beaches – Bamburi, Nyali, Shanzu, Watamu, Diani – you cannot fail to notice several related phenomena. The first will be the number of couples of mixed race – black and white, mostly – that you will come across. Nothing wrong with that, of course – but for one thing. The white faces will almost invariably be old and haggard; the black ones young and fresh.
Fat old men in their sixties (most often German, for some reason) will be holding hands with slim young African girls who could be their grand-daughters. Withered old crones will be kissing taut young Kenyan men with sculpted musculature. These ill-matched couples are not thrown together by love or affection. Their bond is economic. One side of the transaction is buying the services, the attention and the presence of the other.
The buyer knows in his or her heart that the seller feels nothing other than revulsion. The seller knows that the buyer is reliving a fantasy, chasing a youth that is long gone. Neither gets any lasting satisfaction from the sale; neither obtains any long-term gain. But both carry on trading, as they have always done for decades on those sandy beaches of ours. Only the faces change.
Phenomenon number two: you cannot walk on a beach, any beach, without being accosted by hordes of desperate people trying to sell you things. What never changes is what they offer: crudely carved key-chains and statuettes; trips to the reef in very dodgy, decrepit glass-bottomed boats; massages delivered by untutored hands in unsavoury settings. There are hardly any buyers for any of that stuff; there are always dozens of sellers. And, as the beaches have emptied in recent months, the desperation on the faces of the hawkers is distressing to see.
The third phenomenon: walk into the average beach hotel, and you will get that same creepy feeling of time standing still. These places look and feel the same as they did when I first fell in love with the sea, decades ago. I even wrote about this in 2003, when Kenya’s tourism industry was reeling from terrorism alerts and travel advisories. I felt the crisis was not external: it was a failure of imagination.
Of course, we have some quite excellent beach resorts in this land (I patronise most of them). These properties offer rooms designed with sun and sea in mind; they provide interesting and varied cuisine; they run a competent and effective operation; and they have motivated their employees to give full expression to their warm African smiles. But these great hotels can be counted on one hand. The rest sit back with dulled imaginations, no better than the beach boys they periodically clear out of their beachfronts.
What do these three phenomena have in common? A collective failure of imagination, of creativity, of innovation, of new possibilities. We are all selling the bleeding obvious. Our tourist industry was once very creative: it spawned floating restaurants, bush breakfasts, balloon safaris, outstanding new cuisines. But then it all stopped. We have become fossilised and petrified, afraid of change and taking few risks.
If Africa, its industries and its people are ever to make meaningful progress, we must learn to go beyond selling what’s easy. We have been given beautiful resources which we systematically fail to utilise to their fullest potential. It is no longer enough to be yet another cookie-cutter hotel – you have to add genuine value in terms of service, cuisine and entertainment for the well-travelled tourist who has seen much better in the Maldives and Bali. It is no longer enough to rely on planeloads brought out here on low-cost tours by the same old operators from the same old source markets.
This is a time for re-imagining our coastline and its economy. We must produce products of the mind, not just the body. We must raise our game, once and for all. For a start, we could stop singing ‘Malaika’. It was a great melody. But after four decades, it’s time for a new song.