Tourism in Kenya – Interview with Fr. Kizito

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John, a North European volunteer working for a Christian NGO in Nairobi, planned to take a week off in Mombasa. He had arrived only a few months before and was yet to see the Coast. A Kenyan workmate asked him to visit his younger brother studying at the Mombasa Polytechnic and living with his relatives.Once in Mombasa, John went in search of his friend’s brother. He was welcomed to the house, but the sitting room was small and overcrowded, so to put the young man at ease he proposed they go out for a drink. They went to a roadside cafeteria and sat down at a table chatting.

John was interested in knowing more about the Kenyan way of life and asked the young man a lot of questions. But after a while, he noticed conspiratorial smiles, sideways looks and whispered comments by the other patrons. Even people passing on the side-walk looked at him in a strange way. He started feeling uncomfortable. “Is anything wrong with me,” he thought, looking at his clothes. No. His clothes were properly buttoned up, his hair combed.

A quick look at the close-by wall mirror did not reveal anything odd in his general appearance either. Why then should he attract such ironic smiles and knowing nods? After about half an hour he could resist no longer and asked his host why the people were looking at them in such a strange way. The embarrassed young man answered: “Seeing a middle-aged white man in the company of a Kenyan boy, they assume you are buying sex from me”.

John quickly stood up and went back to the crammed sitting room of the young man’s relatives, angry with himself for not having realised the equivocal situation, and with the Kenyans who could think such an evil thing of him. A few days later, after enquiring about the tourist scene in Mombasa and coming to know the behaviour of many European tourists, his anger against the Kenyans who had grossly misunderstood his intentions turned into shame and fury for the conduct of some of his compatriots.

Many tourists come to Kenya for cheap and “unusual” sex, and their behaviour is so commonplace that everything is interpreted in that light.

John was still seething with rage as he recounted this episode to a circle of friends.

These days people talk of ecotourism, which is tourism that is respectful of the environment. This form of tourism, according to its proponents, is sensitive and has little or no negative impact on natural habitat, wildlife, or water quality. It does not require massive investment in infrastructure, machinery, or personnel.

Ecotourism is thus a welcome improvement on the tourism policy that has transformed some of the most beautiful places in the world, like Mombasa town and its beaches, into a succession of pretentious and standardised hotels.

Very good. But how about a tourism respectful of human beings? A recent issue of an European magazine carries a cartoon showing two white tourists lying on a beach with palm trees and African attendants in the background. The location could be Kenya , Senegal or the Ivory Coast; in fact, any place on the African coast. And one of them says: “It’s a beautiful place. Pity that there are too many extra-communitarians”. Currently in Europe, “Extra-European Unionists” are being labelled.

The joke is meant to make fun of the ignorance, arrogance, and overbearance of the rich of the North when they visit the South. Still, for many Africans, this is not a joke. It is something they witness everyday.

There is a myth that tourism is an encounter between people and cultures. Unfortunately however, tourists often carry all their prejudices against the people they visit along with their luggage. They tend not to be interested in meeting people, but in confirming their prejudices. Generally they know almost nothing of the problems afflicting Africa, they have no emphathy for the people they meet, and will do whatever is possible to take pictures of what they regard as strange situations. Back home they recount myths to their friends such as how it feels to face a lion – no need to say that they met the lion at the Nairobi Orphanage!

If they come back more than three times they behave like so many miniature Hemingways.

These tourists are not interested in a sustainable future for the planet. They tend to relate to the local people in the same way they relate to the environment and the wildlife. They appreciate the strange and the exotic.

With their attitudes and requests to the travel agencies, they promote “ethnic folklore parks” where, in order to survive, local people are forced to become caricatures of themselves. See the Maasai dressed up in all their regalia and ready – for a fee – to pose for a picture with the tourists at the gates of our parks. This has absolutely nothing to do with the dignity of the Maasai and the survival and development of their culture.

This kind of tourism does not promote cultural understanding. And it is not clear whether it promotes economic growth at all.

Tourists may already have paid their “everything included” fee to the North American, European, or Oriental travel agencies long before landing. The agencies have their own hotels that employ foreign personnel, and hold bank accounts in their home countries.

Tourism like this does not help overcome ecological problems, let alone local degradation, desperation and misery. It even deepens the people’s feeling of alienation and exploitation.

What a tourist pays for a two-week stay in Kenya is a small fortune for the local hotel waiter or the beach attendant. This economic reality is made more divisive by the cynical attitudes of some tourists who are not only not ready to treat the locals as fellow human beings, but want to exploit their misery to obtain cheap services and sexual indulgence.

This is not ecotourism, but egotourism at the service of the most egotistical human tendencies.

Tourism has a lot of possible positive potential, but most of the time the positive aspects are not developed, because they would require too much effort both from tourists and their hosts.

Fr. Desmond de Sousa, Executive Secretary of the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism, an association actively engaged in promoting the positive aspects of tourism, has recently written:

“The way the tourism system actually operates in Third World countries produces negative effects that far outweigh the positive. When more and more perceptive and concerned people are asking: “Does the tourism system operate in a way that desecrates human beings and therefore insults God?” then tourism becomes a religious issue. Women and children are among those most vulnerable to exploitation. Tourism usually does not cause prostitution, it accelerates it.

“A second highly vulnerable group are the indigenous people. Their ancestral land is appropriated, their lives are disrupted, their sacred rites prostituted to tourists’ search for the “primitive” and “exotic”.

Another vulnerable group are the ordinary workers in hotels. The tourist is always right. So they have to be friendly and subservient, to earn the elusive tourist dollars. Their human dignity often trampled upon”.

Is this the tourism predominant in the Third World?

By Fr. KIZITO,
An Italian missionary working in Kenya

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