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Roma. That’s what the locals now call Malindi, on the north coast of Kenya. This is because of the many Italians who live in the small resort town.
“The Italians come here because it’s cheaper to buy land and run businesses,” said my tuk tuk driver, Mohamed. “They own the big mansions, the clubs, the resorts and even the nice cars. We’ve all had to learn how to speak Italian, in addition to English. Some say we are being colonised again, although I think that’s ridiculous.”
Mohamed is one of the many residents of the coastal town who make a living from tourism. “Malindi is very poor,” he says. “Have you seen the houses that people live in? Mud huts. It’s different from Mombasa and Nairobi.”
On the two-hour bus trip from Moi International Airport in Mombasa to Malindi, I could see how difficult life was for most Kenyans.
The dingy mud huts and houses that we passed on the busy road doubled as homes and business premises.
We saw four-poster beds being built, hair salons and a motorcycle tyre-fitter. The motorcycles are used as taxis and carry two or three people at a time.
Despite the poverty, what I admired about the Kenyans was that they weren’t sitting around waiting for people to feel sorry for them. They were working hard to make a living.
Malindi is home to Sandies Tropical Village, the sparkling jewel in a dull crown. There I forgot I was in a Third World country even though the impoverished town, Malindi, was barely five minutes away.
After a warm Kenyan welcome, with coconut juice and traditional dancing, I explored the resort and fell in love with the rooms.
In typical Masai Manyatta village-style, the chalet-like rooms were made out of indigenous wood and the roofs covered with palm branches from the many trees that dot the beautiful coast.
The white sand, the clear blue water and the coconut palm trees all look brochure-perfect. Even the dead coral littering parts of the beach didn’t look out of place.
The only drawback was loiterers around the beach bothering tourists. Without a resort staff member or security, we couldn’t go out to swim or walk on the beach.
Malindi is the water sports capital of Kenya with activities including sailing, windsurfing, canoeing, beach volleyball, snorkelling and swimming. Having never snorkelled, I looked forward to it the most.
Pointing out the sights of Malindi, our guide for the day, Alex, kept us in fits of laughter. “You know Africa is messed up when you have to bribe the fish to come up the water,” he said.
We couldn’t help but laugh, despite the indictment of the prevalence of corruption.
With bread in my hands to bribe the fish, I again became nervous about going overboard. I eventually went in when Alex suggested I use the life jacket, which made it easier.
I never got to throw in the bread as it was snatched by some hungry fish.
After snorkelling the better part of an hour, Alex suggested we go to an island. It was different. During low tide, there’s a spot of dry land. It was amazing to get off the boat and stand in the middle as the waves crashed around us.
I was told not to expect to see any Masai warriors as they like to keep to themselves, but saw two on the beach. I had been told that you’d only ever find the traditional Masai people in the Serengeti, but it turns out they were members of a local Masai group in Malindi who still practise their culture, and make crafts to sell to tourists.
Going to Malindi town is an experience in itself and after deciding to take a tuk tuk instead of a motorcycle, the driver Mohamed, became my guide and showed us the sights.
From the markets and supermarkets, to the Vasco da Gama Pillar – erected by the Portuguese explorer on the spot where he met Malindi authorities in 1498 to sign a trade agreement – and one of the finest Italian restaurants in Malindi, The Old Man and the Sea, I got a chance to see Malindi through the eyes of a local.
Whenever I went back to the resort, I was amazed anew at how beautiful it looked and how close it was to the poverty of Malindi. - Sunday Tribune