Columnist Mutuma Mathiu’s recent article on the people of Pwani elicited a lot of anger among Kenya’s coastal people, who are sick and tired of being labelled as potential terrorists who fail to appreciate the car-loads of domestic tourists who take beach holidays in Mombasa.
His sentiments offended me at a personal level because, not only am I married to a person from the coast, I also happen to live in Malindi which, in my view, is a microcosm of what ails the region as a whole.
Mathiu’s opinions are not unique; they reflect those of many Kenyans who believe that instead of grumbling about their predicament, coastal people should be grateful for the many middle and upper class Kenyans who spend their hard-earned money at beach hotels during the holiday season.
(Assuming, of course, that the money spent in a beach hotel will automatically trickle down to the deeply impoverished locals, who on occasion supplement their meagre incomes by selling trinkets and sexual services to tourists.)
The analysis was flawed at various levels. Firstly, it reinforced the stereotype that coastal people are not as hardworking and self-sacrificing as people from other parts of the country.
My husband has worked hard — too hard, if truth be told — all his life. Never have I seen him “sitting under a tree waiting for the coconut to fall”, as upcountry people derogatorily describe the behaviour of Coast people.
(On the contrary, he, like most Coast people, actively avoids hanging around palm trees for fear of being killed by a falling coconut.)
Secondly, Mathiu, like most Kenyans, failed to recognise that the birth of organisations and movements such as the Mombasa Republican Council are the result of gross government neglect of the coast region since independence.
Despite a thriving tourism industry, Coast has remained among the most impoverished regions in the country.
The Kibaki administration says that things are about to change with devolution and the building of a port in Lamu, but coastal people are not convinced that these will improve their lot, partly because of short-sighted leadership, as Mathiu rightly pointed out.
Many Coast people believe that these projects will be hijacked by corrupt local leaders and non-coastal elites, just like the prime beach properties that were grabbed during the Kenyatta and Moi years.
Already there is talk of a real estate boom near the proposed Lamu port, with tycoons from Nairobi and elsewhere seeking to buy out the locals for peanuts.
Coastal people are not threatened by the petty hawkers, shopkeepers, and professionals (not forgetting prostitutes) from upcountry who make a living in the region.
They are most afraid of rich and powerful people — both local and foreign — who have grabbed land and other resources at the expense of the locals.
In Taveta, for instance, most of the land belongs to just two rich and powerful families that have no ancestral roots in the area. The dusty town is one of the poorest I have ever visited. Jobless youths idle about drinking chang’aa when they can afford it, or dreaming of escaping to Mombasa.
In Malindi, which for all intents and purposes might as well be an Italian colony, poverty levels are so high that parents have been known to sell their children to paedophiles. The problem is so alarming that an Italian NGO recently started an anti-paedophilia drive targeted at Italian tourists.
Drug addiction is destroying the region’s youth, who have among the highest illiteracy and unemployment rates in the country.
Italians control much of the tourism economy such as hotels, restaurants and casinos. But for some reason, these investments do not translate into better average incomes for the local people.
Many Italian residents cautiously admit that there is also a large underground economy very much protected by rich and powerful Kenyans, which has further contributed to the area’s impoverishment.
For years, coastal people have been viewed as curious backdrops to a beach holiday, not as equal citizens with a role to play in nation-building and policy-making.
This needs to change. The state needs to engage in constructive dialogue with the people of the region, and not respond to their demands with violence.