THERE’S something about Africa that gets into the soul.
It’s not just the beauty of its natural environment, its culture and its people, Africa is an ancient spirit and, once you’ve heard it, its song never leaves you.
A trip to Kenya is possibly one of the most gentle introductions to this far-flung continent for the uninitiated.
A hot climate, miles of game reserves, leagues of sandy beaches and a clement welcome, all help to make visitors feel safe and comfortable travelling through the country as well as providing plenty to do and see.
There has been a lot of recent hysteria over the danger to tourists going to Kenya. With election troubles; a fire which gutted the arrivals building at Jomo Kenyatta airport; the Westgate Mall siege; the threat of kidnapping by Somali pirates; and the acid attacks on Christians in Mombasa, the country’s tourist industry has taken a heavy blow and, as usual, it’s the little people who are suffering from the shortfall of feet from the west.
|BEACH BOY: Diani beach|
Along the eastern coastline lies Diani beach, an exotic picture paradise painted white and azure blue with warm sands, coconut palms and a seascape of breakers gently rolling across a coral reef.
Here can be found some of Kenya’s most opulent hotels where guests can relax and enjoy all the luxurious hospitality, together with its excessive trimmings, East Africa has to offer.
But Kenya also has a dark side.
At the hotels, the same staff will serve you breakfast as well as dinner and breakfast the next day. Working hours are long and one waiter told me with a smile: “You have to be strong to survive these shifts.”
Between the complexes and the beach, a narrow strip of vegetation creates a divide as wide as the Great Rift Valley.
While overweight, over-pampered, scarlet-faced guests sip their cocktails in the shade of a midday sun, poor traders are forced to peddle their wares under the full force of the African heat. They target tourists in the hope of selling their colourful kangas (sarongs), carved wooden animals or even a king coconut.
They know their place and never step across that tiny strip of green that separates them from potential punters. They’re not beggars; they don’t want something for nothing. Although often annoying, but always warm, happy and exuberant, the “Beach Boys”, as they are affectionately known, are just trying to earn a living like everyone else and they’ll stand for hours on the beach trying to catch an eye.
|NOT FOR SALE: on the Malindi road|
And it’s not just a few plants that separate the rich from the poor in Kenya. In Nairobi, 60 per cent of the population occupies just six per cent of the land: most of them contained inside the dark confines of Kibera shanty town – the second largest slum on the continent next to Soweto in South Africa.
Fifty per cent of Kibera’s inhabitants are unemployed, despite its proximity to the booming industrial area of the city and, as with many poor parts of town, alcohol and drug abuse is rife; health and sanitation poor.
Along the coastline, there were stories of whole villages being uprooted (some allegedly at gunpoint) and moved out of their traditional homes to make way for new luxury hotels and apartment complexes. Between the millionaires’ havens, the road from Ukunda to Malindi is fringed with tiny villages of mud huts with corrugated iron roofs: the real Africa and the places where its true spirit lies.
|REAL GIRAFFE: Nairobi National Park|
It is true to say that comparisons are odious and it’s wrong to attribute western values to the lives of those who are untouched by it. But it’s difficult to believe that almost half of the people living in one of the best developed economies in Eastern Africa survive in poverty and lack the basic necessities for human subsistence.
It’s not my intention to paint a bad picture of a beautiful, vibrant country. Whenever I visit a new place, I like to look below its surface and normally veer away from the spots where tourists are herded.
I did go on a small safari, because I wanted to see with my own eyes animals in their natural habitats that I would otherwise only see in a zoo. The sights were spectacular and I would love to return and visit the Masai Mara some day to do it properly.
|CAMELS and fishing boats in Diani|
Kenya’s tourist industry is struggling at the moment because we in the west feel that it is unsafe to travel there.
Terrorism, however, is a global problem and it’s doubtful that there’s anywhere truly safe in the world.
There’s a big military presence along the coastline, all eyes looking out to sea, and security has been stepped up in the cities in order to protect people from harm.
Kenya is a magical place, bursting with spirit, dynamism and contradiction. It is a place where everyone should pay a visit to at least once in their lives to recognise perspective at the very least.