A glance into the complexities of tourism

The village of Kikambala is about a kilometer east off the road from Mombasa to Malindi. The village isn’t marked. There is a huge sign for the (now closed) Sun n Sand hotel on the beach, a few properties south of my fathers’. That’s how you know when to turn. Then it’s down a paved road towards the old hotel. There’s a great archway, now faded, with a stone sign: Sun n Sand.

When I was a kid and coming to Kenya every year in the late 90s, Sun n Sand was always busy. A beautiful 5 star hotel flooded by hordes of foreign tourists. We used to try to sneak into the hotel, to take advantage of the marvelous swimming pools… Despite having the beach and ocean right in front of us.

Before the terrorist attacks on hotels and the election violence that marred the 2000s, Kenya was a tourist paradise. From independence in the early 1960s until the late 1990s Kenya was THE African destination for Europeans and North Americans hankering for a truly exotic trip to magical Africa. Kenya was well-developed, with western comforts, and safe – provided you stayed on the tourist trail: from the game reserve to hotels to the beach. You got all the big game – elephants, lions, hippos, rhinos, and giraffes. You got the sparkling beaches, and the soothing warmth of the Indian Ocean.

South Africa had apartheid, Tanzania was poor and socialist. Nowhere else in Africa had the dual pleasures of beaches and big game. Nor spoke English.

But the heyday of Kenyan tourism has ended and industry has been suffering for years.

There was once a bustling market, surrounding the faded archway, hawking touristy wares. There were carved wooden giraffes for days. The shops are all still there, servicing the local community, but it has a real air of desperation.

The road splits at the entrance to the Sun n Sand, so you take a left. The pavement immediately disappears. You bump and trundle along a dirt road, then you take the first right along another dirt road, and then the first left. Down a quick little rubble hill and you’re confronted by a set of gates flanked by a coral wall. Bajuni House says the sign. Beware the dogs says another. Through the gates, along a rock-and-flower lined driveway, you drive up to the house.

My father’s house is really imposing. You can see it from the beach bar, a good kilometer away, creeping over the top of the trees. It’s six stories tall, which makes sense because he’s been building it for 25 years. Bit by bit. His legacy to his children.

It’s the second highest sight for kilometers around. Dwarfed only by the spectre of the new developments at Sun n Sand. A half completed monstrosity, there are three concrete shells, 13 stories high. As the story goes the wealthy businessman who bought the old Sun n Sand ran out of money mid-construction. Their unfinished glory looms over the whole village.

I’d never been through the village as a kid. Which is odd, considering all I had to do was walk out the front gates. We’d normally just drive through it, to and from Mombasa.

My father and I would often walk along the beach in the evening, provided the tide was out. The tide was in so we decided to walk through the village instead. I wasn’t quite prepared for this. I guess the rose-tinted glasses of youth don’t necessarily allow you to see the world for what it is. While we were living in my father’s hotel-cum-mansion, the villagers were living in corrugated-tin shacks. Always multiple generations and sometimes all in just one room.

All those children I would see playing on the beach? Yeah, this is where they live. Amidst garbage and goats, with no running water or electricity. You can read about poverty. Watch those charity ads on TV and documentaries. But I don’t think it is truly tangible until you see it in real life.

I couldn’t help feeling incredibly guilty. I’m a westerner, sitting on the beach sipping a beer and writing in a notebook. I’m in my 20s, using travel as a crutch for self-actualisation. I’m safe in the knowledge that I’ll be home in a few weeks. I have the liberty and privilege to travel. They don’t. And I have the temerity to turn away the old lady selling shells on the beach. Because I already have enough shells.

One of the villagers, Kishenga, is, for lack of a better word: our servant. He comes every morning, does some gardening, cleans the apartments, does the laundry and runs errands. I always felt awkward when he knocked on the door to my apartment: Rashidi, do you have laundry? Can I come inside to clean? These are things I’m used to doing for myself. I mentioned this a friend of mine who’d recently moved back to Mombasa from Canada. She also struggled with the idea of having a servant.

But as I was reminded by my father, unemployment hovers around forty percent, so many people don’t even have jobs. At least Kishenga gets paid. This feels like scant consolation to me. We don’t realise how fortunate we are here in the West until we journey out to other parts of the world. Running water, hot water, electricity, internet, education, health care. Employment, social safety nets.

But here’s the weird thing. And you’ll hear this quite often from other people who have travelled to the global south. Despite everything I just described, the people appear happy. It’s impossible to objectively compare happiness, despite the UN’s best intentions. But there’s no substitute for a feeling. And I felt like everyone was happier. Sure, many people don’t have jobs, electricity or running water. But I rarely saw anyone starving. Children would run up to me on the beach, giggling. Old women would greet me with a warm smile.

I think it makes a big difference when you live somewhere warm. With the sun shining all the time, and a cool breeze off the ocean. But also somewhere without constant and pervasive technology. Where there’s no wifi. Where people talk to each other. Where kids play in the sand all afternoon, unsupervised, because why would you need to supervise children.

Its a place where everyone knows everyone. My father walks up and down the beach, with children running in his wake. Professah professah! Shaking hands and greeting everyone. Smiling and laughing. Life seems simpler here.

Back home we rush to and from work, rarely sparing a moment for anyone else outside our social circle. Don’t look at me. Don’t touch me. Please don’t talk to me. Don’t even come near me. We always have places to be. Passive aggressively glaring at the driver that cut you off. Or the commuter that accidentally trampled on your foot. Or the person blocking the door on the subway.

And if we’re not rushing madly to and fro, we feel like we’re wasting our time. Productivity. Work work work. We don’t smile and laugh as much. Hell, I get annoyed when people laugh too loudly at a coffee shop. Can’t you see that I’m trying to work?

And we constantly worry about money. Worry that if we don’t make enough money we’ll be out on the street. It’s not like it’s sunny and warm all the time here. And we don’t have much public space. We can’t grow our own crops and have our own goats like the villagers.

We fret and worry about ourselves over social media. We constantly compare ourselves to each other, and end up feeling like we don’t stack up. Someone’s always having more fun on Instagram. Someone’s always getting married and having beautiful children on Facebook. We don’t really know our neighbours. We’ve never been so close together, yet so far apart.

Journeying into the village of Kikambala may have been an eye opener for me, but returning home to Canada was an even bigger one. Remember that guilty feeling I described earlier, after walking through the village? Now I feel like I was projecting. Because they were living in corrugated shacks surrounded by goats and garbage without all the amenities of western life, I felt sorry for them. But why? When it appears they’re actually quite happy? And we’re quite miserable, caught in the hamster wheel of modern city-life.

By Rashid Mohiddin 

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.