Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Beach Boys

Hey Folks,

Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it. I hope this post finds you well. It’s been a busy few weeks for me and I apologize for breaking my promise to post once a week. Well, here is a new post to slake any curiosity you may still have about my life in Kenya. Thanks, as always, for reading.

This post is all about beaches. As you may know, Mombasa is right smack on the coast of Kenya. Mombasa itself is actually an island. But to the north and south of the island lie a plethora of incredibly swanky beach resorts that cater to the desires of a heavily European clientele. The resorts are gargantuan and are comparable to the ones I have visited on various vacations to the Caribbean in terms of quality of service and quality of infrastructure.

            Work is tough here. Because we all live on campus and work on campus, the vast majority of our life here is spent within the confines of the Academy. Most of the Teaching Fellows jump at any chance they get to escape and see more of Mombasa and Kenya, even if that means just going out for dinner (which happens generally 3 times a week). As I have mentioned, I will post about food soon (I promise!). The food here is fantastic as long as you are outside of the Aga Khan campus. Most weekends that I haven’t been on duty, I have spent traveling.
            Anyways, two weekends back, right after my most recent post went up, my friends Lindsey, Safiya and Jacob, and I headed down to South Coast, an area called Diani. The only way off the island of Mombasa to the south is by ferry. The ferry is stationed right next to, literally abutting, AKA,M. On the weekends they generally have three to four of the large flat-bedded ships churning through the water. It is truly a sight to behold to see the ferries unload. The guard on the boat snaps back and releases the taut rope holding back the revving motorcycles and matatus. Once it hits the ground, the motorcycles speed up the ramp and into Mombasa followed closely by the matatus that have a much harder time dragging themselves up the inclined ramp. The lumbering trucks and buses are off last and by the time they creak and groan off the ferry the human flood has begun. What seemed at first like a reasonable amount of people somehow transforms into a veritable swarm. The entrance to the ramp, a few moments ago releasing the last cars becomes clogged with people. Those first off run up the ramp to catch a matatu or taxi while the rest of the people are in no rush at all. They pushcarts full of fruit, carry large sacks of charcoal or tug children along behind them, children oblivious to the crush of people around them. It takes almost ten minutes for the ferry to unload its human cargo before the guard waves the vehicles on for the next trip.

            After the brief and painless trip on the ferry, we hopped on a matatu and for about $1 made it all the way down, about 30-45 minutes, to where our cottage for the night was located. Our accommodations were sparse, but more than adequate. Four beds, one bathroom, one shower. Perfect. We even had access to a pool and the beach. Double check.

            The hotel also housed a number of Colobus Monkeys, apparently the Diani region is the only habitat for these monkeys in Kenya. Exciting stuff! I have very inadequate information on them, so I apologize. But there are these cool bridges that people have put up across the roads there so the monkeys run above traffic rather than through it. Conservation efforts are alive and well in Diani.

            There was still plenty of daylight left so we made our way down to the beach to grab some lunch and enjoy the sun. Upon reaching the beach we were immediately set upon by Beach Boys. These are not the Beach Boys most Americans or Europeans are used to, these guys have no immediately apparent musical aptitude for soothing beach tunes, rather these men seek to provide services to people on the beach. Some of these men, the younger ones generally, provide “services” to generally older European women. Sex tourism is a large sector of the Kenyan economy whether authorities that be in Kenya like it or not. It is not out of the ordinary to see an older white man or woman clasping hands on the beach or nuzzling up at the bar to a much younger, more robust Kenyan. It would be rash to assume these are all client/ prostitute relationships; however it certainly is reasonable to assume that most are. These people escape their lives in Europe or the US to come to Kenya, away from any prying eyes (that know who they are) to live out their fantasies in an idyllic beach setting.

            The other beach boys were the ones more interested in our hardy band of Teaching Fellows. These guys sell anything a touristy beachgoer could possibly desire: key chains, bracelets, coconuts!, shells, and marijuana. They are relentless. No matter how many times you wave them off, they come back for more. To quote the late, great Obi-Wan Kenobi: “The sand people are easily startled, but they’ll soon be back… and in greater numbers.” Truer words have not been said. We settled down on our towels and pulled out our books and were the picture of relaxation. But soon enough, “Hey, my brother from another mother! Are you relaxing?” Me: “Yes, as I am sure you can tell.” Relaxation over. Next follows an offer from him to sell us something, and then five minutes of us telling him we are not interested and if he could please leave us alone. Two minutes after he leaves, another man shows up with a similar approach, as if our minds had changed in that short span of time.
            I know I sound callous. Our interactions with these men defined our weekend. We came to relax but we were consistently frustrated when it came to be that our every interaction with any Kenyan had to involve some transaction. Whether we were walking to a restaurant and a man joins our group to chat, inevitably, a few minutes in, he asks for a small fee for showing us where to go, even though we were well aware of our direction and final goal. These men are forced to invent jobs for themselves where they force themselves on tourists and seek to squeeze out every bit of money they can.

            Much of the economy of Kenya is based on tourism: safaris, Mt. Kenya, the beaches, etc. With the recent political unrest with the riots as well as the actions of the Somali pirates, Kenya has been placed on a number of travel warning lists by countries like the US. What this warning means is that US insurance companies will not cover travel and health insurance for their customers while they visit Kenya as it is too risky. Therefore, many people cancel their trips or decide to go somewhere else. This leaves Kenya in somewhat of a rut. These beach boys, who survive off of the little odds and ends extracted from tourists, suddenly have a massive drop in potential customers. Therefore, their behavior towards us is somewhat explained. They need to double their aggressiveness and efforts in order to make even a fraction of what they were before.

            Our group had many debates on how to deal with our situation. We first felt that if the people were not selling a product that we wanted to buy, we were completely justified in refusing their advances. After a few hours, we wanted to refuse them on purely personal grounds, out of sheer frustration. We eventually caved and paid for a few hugely overpriced coconuts and some cheap key chains. These purchases led to another onslaught of beach salesmen all demanding we “promote” them and when they were rebuffed, we were greeted with looks of distain. It is an immensely frustrating situation. Obviously, I am living here and teaching Kenyan students, doing what I can in small ways to better the future of this nation. I want the country and its people to do well. But to pay out a couple hundred shillings to every man I run into on the beach is not only not sustainable with the paycheck I get every month, but it is also not sustainable for the men who seek the payment. If I pay out the money, it only encourages the continuation of what is obviously a profession of desperation, but also one that fails to develop the people or country in any way.

            So I am confused and obviously conflicted on this issue. It’s hard to see, but only so much can be done. And on the selfish side of things, its hard to escape from a truly crushingly hard week of work and be faced with moral dilemmas and having to constantly ward off people. I appreciate any thoughts or comments on this issue. Readers! I ask you to be my moral guide.

            Well, I have more to say, but it will have to go into another post as this one has rambled on for a while.

Not all the interactions we negative! These kids were fascinated by the cover screens on my Kindle.

Speaking of moral dilemmas, check this one out. Lindsey Thompson, a fellow Bowdoin grad, submitted this question to the New York Times ethicist after a conversation we had about the women we pay to clean our apartments. Article below:

Thanks for reading,

-Mzungu currently confused and cashless after a weekend at the beach

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