Empty Beaches

We’re in Kenya: Hat, husband and I. And the dogs.

We’re on the coast: the same stretch of beach that my mother-in-law enjoyed as a child, the same one my children and their father before them played on. Everything about it is familiar: the trees, the shade they cast, the sounds, the curve of the sand and the heads of coral, landmarks identified by a great grandmother for a trio of children who still refer to them by the Famous Five names she chose: North Bay, South Bay, Swallow Pool, Starfish Gardens, Crocodile Rock. But something this year has changed: the faces of the fishermen, and their demeanour, are more somber now. They greet us warmly though – the same men from whom we have bought prawns and red snapper and calamari for years – they are relieved to see that some of the regulars are coming back; they are relieved to find somebody who’ll buy their catch. They enquire after us, after the older children who, for the first time, because of school, are not with us. When I explain they smile encouraging approval, ‘it’s good for children to go to school’, they tell me (my big kids wouldn’t agree: they’d rather be here, body surfing the waves or sprawled on beds in sleepy afternoons with good books, than facing mock exam results).

How’s Tanzania? they want to know, are you getting rain?

(Rain and its debut is an integral part of any conversation in Africa)

Tanzania is fine, I say, the rain has been good.

Not here, they say, here it is late. 

Its tardiness threatens to exacerbate existing problems.

How is Kenya? I ask gently.

They shake their heads sadly, ‘two men have bought a lot of bad things to Kenya’, they say.

The tourism sector, Kenya’s golden egg, has been shattered by the post election crisis.  Beach hotels, those that remain open, are operating at less than 20% capacity (at this time of year they ought to be almost full). Charter flights from the continent have been cancelled until mid year. Over 30,000 people in the hospitality industry have lost their jobs. And the rock that the politicians hurled with such violence into the peaceful pond that this was has manifested more than mere ripples: tidal waves of uncertainty wash over Kenya’s people, threatening to engulf them. The collapse of tourism means that the taxi drivers have no passengers, the restaurants no diners, the curio vendors no buyers and the fishermen no hungry customers to haggle a morning’s catch with.

Early this morning I sat with my coffee watching the sun slide above a watery horizon, buffing the sea bronze so that it hurt my eyes to hold my gaze.  Strung along the precipice of my view were dozens of ngalos, the local fishing boats, their sails pulled tight to catch the breeze so that they skimmed the oceans surface, small keels ironing out the choppiness and tossing it nonchalantly behind in frothy wake. Such determination. Such single-mindedness in the face of prevailing adversity: who will buy their fish I wondered worriedly: I can’t cope with more than a few kilos.

Later I walked on a lonely beach and watched the waves stroke the sand so that it shivered in delight, tiny bubbles rising like goose-bumps.  Palm fronds rattled a tune in response to faint instruction from the wind. The sea receded with the tide leaving behind rock pools wriggling with myriad tiny marine creatures. And the occasional enormous breathtakingly bright star fish.

It’s still beautiful here.

Come now.

Before the madding crowd returns.

And buy kingfish for your supper from the fishermen.

10 Responses to “Empty Beaches”

  1. R. Sherman Says:

    It seems no matter what the well-heeled do, even with the ostensible purpose of helping the less fortunate, it is always the simple people who pay the price.

  2. Roberta Says:

    Your writing is achingly beautiful. I wish I could see these things for myself, but through your eyes – I can.

  3. The Good Woman Says:

    Hi there – and guess what – I’m in Tanzania – Zanzibar actually. Just getting a bit of away time as I try to process what is happening in Kenya right now. I’ll post again soon (i Hope).

  4. K Says:

    Oh how I wish I was there – you write so beautifully. Whereabouts are you – Msambweni or Watamu? Did you drive up through Lunga Lunga? I hope you have a good relaxing time. Poor Kenya…

  5. mzungu chick Says:

    RM – totally with you there. Kenya is so beautiful at the moment especially down on the beaches where there’s been no trouble.

    Please come one, come all to visit, Kenyans are suffering badly from the lack of tourism.! Local reports say visitors are down by 90% from this time last year and yet it’s now we need them more than ever.

  6. nuttycow Says:

    Arrrgghh! That description makes me ache for Kenya – I can’t wait to go back in May. And yes, we will be down the coast (Diani). It will make a change from the dark dank days of February in London.

  7. Irene Says:

    Oh, I wish I could come, I really do, but I don’t even have the money to travel to Amsterdam, let alone Kenya.

    It is so good that you are there, maybe people will start believing it is possible again. I do so want the people in Kenya to be prosperous and safe and happy. There must be countries in Africa that do succeed and where people can make their dreams come true. We in the west don’t know enough about that.

  8. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    hello. and thank you all.

    K I’m on a tiny little beach in Tiwi … heavenly. Drove from taveta, across at Voi and over the shimba hills where we saw some tiny forest eles who tried to be brave and trumpeted loudly.

    Good Woman how simply fabulous to hear from you; I was wondering where you were and whether you were OK. Enjoy znz.

  9. Ruth Says:

    It has been over 19 years since we lived in Western Kenya, and my heart aches for the country. I have not heard from our friends there since the troubles have begun. I pray for peace. What more can I do from so far away?

    We did spend some time on the beach while we were there — Easter Weekend in Malindi, and a conference in a hotel in Mombassa. It was where I first snorkeled on a coral reef. I am glad it is peaceful at least on the coast. Have you heard news from Sotik, where a friend of ours lives now, or from Busia district, where we lived?

    Stay safe

  10. Allison Says:

    It has been so nice to stumble upon your blog and read about life in Africa. I spent a semester in Kenya in ’03, after Kibaki was elected and things were so different, and even after returning there in ’06, there was some unrest, but what happened after these elections….it’s so sad to read and hear (or not really, I think the media coverage in the US has been lacking) what is happening. I am grateful though as I finally heard from the last of my friends telling me they’re ok. One said that he hoped I wouldn’t be too afraid to come back to Kenya…as you say it’s still beautiful there, and I love so many people there, how could I not? Anyways, enough rambling from me 😛
    I look forward to reading more about your life in Tanzania too 🙂

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