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.
Before the madding crowd returns.
And buy kingfish for your supper from the fishermen.