If you are a first time visitor to Malindi, you would be forgiven for thinking you are in some part of Italy.
Indeed, Little Milan — as this Kenyan historic coastal town is often called — is increasingly becoming Italian; many Italians taking up residence or visiting the town. And Italian culture is seeping into the town.
That “the British came to Malindi as tourists, the Germans for women and alcohol but the Italians for everything” has largely come to pass.
But the Italian “invasion” of Malindi is not the first one by foreigners.
Arab sailors docked here first in the early 1200s, and most of them settled and married African women, leading to the sprouting up of the Swahili community.
By the 16th century, the Portuguese seafarers had arrived, and made the place a supply station for their ships. This was after Vasco da Gama docked on April 15, 1498. But they soon sailed to India and the Far East, leaving only the enduring Vasco da Gama pillar as their legacy.
The German era of the 1970s is remembered with nostalgia. Many of them were elderly pensioners. They moved in with loads of cash and spent it with abandon, freely drowning themselves in alcohol.
They loved African women, and at least built houses for their girlfriends or wives, but that is as far as they went. They never invested in business. After holidays, they packed their bags and left.
The British who arrived at almost the same time were strict fellows, with measured spending, calculated drinking, and made few investments, remaining a closed society with little interest in the locals.
Free and aggressive
Then came the Italians. Free, ferocious and aggressive in all fields, they soon dominated every aspect of life. Today, more than 80 per cent of the Caucasian population, estimated at about 4,000, is Italian. Another 30,000 Italian tourists visit every year.
Italian is probably the third most widely spoken language, after Kiswahili and English. In fact many local businesses now advertise in Italian, alongside either English or Kiswahili.
There has been the mushrooming of Italian language centres — there are more than 10 — but several of the students are prostitutes who make it a point of learning Italian the moment they set foot in Malindi.
“We realise that 32 years have passed since an Italian opened the first hotel, Suli Suli. A lot of water has passed under the bridge,” says Mr Roberto Macri, the Italian consul in Malindi.
The Italian embassy is the only foreign mission with a resident consul to assist its population.
Today, there are nearly 30 Italian-owned beach hotels, six safari lodges and hundreds of private homes. There are Italian supermarkets, barber shops, butcheries, tour firms, construction companies, hardware stores, petrol stations...
“The Italian was attracted by the wonderful climate, friendly atmosphere and lovely residents who are so kind and welcoming,’’ Mr Macri says.
The investments have acted as catalysts for other businesses in Malindi and surrounding villages, attracting Kenyans and other foreigners.
Malindi almost entirely depends on tourism dominated by the Italian clientele. About 10,000 Kenyans feeding about 70,000 mouths are been employed in the sector.
“Unlike the other Europeans, the Italian came to invest and make life better for the locals,” said one Italian, Mr Ricardo Renzo.
The launch of the Sac Marco Space and monitoring project in Ngomeni in the 1970s also helped to get Italians to Malindi. One of them, Mr Franco Esposito (alias Kasoso wa Baya), even became a Kenyan and vied for the Magarini parliamentary seat in 1997, and came close to winning.
A recent disbursement of Sh260 million has transformed the fishing village of Ngomeni to a modern one.