Mohamed Ali Mwatsingwa speaks the kind of French that would attract the attention of any francophone.
The savvy businessman knows that to sell souvenirs to tourists at Diani beach in Kwale County he has to market them in a language they understand, which explains why he learnt French, German and English, among other languages.
Interestingly, he never saw the inside of a classroom and can barely write.
That has not stopped the 48-year-old, who has spent most of his life on the beach, from learning the languages.
“I have been on the beach for 30 years. When I was 12, I used to run away from home and come to the beach. I learnt English through my interaction with American hippies. They became my friends and taught me the language,” he said.
A holidaymaker who teaches French in Nairobi taught him a few words and he learnt the rest from listening and speaking.
“Whenever he visited he would teach me some French. I have learnt everything else including German here on the beach. When someone speaks I listen then I try to pronounce the words and also find out the meaning. Practice makes perfect,” he said.
Mwatsingwa is one of the more than 2,000 small-scale operators who eke out a living at Diani beach and whose fluency in foreign languages surprises and impresses many.
Despite little or no formal education, boat operators, tour guides, beach boys and curio sellers learn two or three foreign languages just to get by.
The most obvious reason for their multilingualism is to successfully interact with foreign tourists.
Hassan Bakari, a boat operator, speaks German impressively. The irony is that he knows only a smattering of English.
“Tourists trust you when they know you speak their language. They are also curious to know how you learnt the language, and from there you can initiate a conversation that eventually leads to business. I have also done several translations,” said Bakari, who conducts sailing expeditions.
For beach operators, linguistic competence is a sure way to get a piece of the tourism revenue. Most prefer German.
“Most tourists that we interact with at Diani beach are Germans. There are not many right now but come October and they will flock to the beach. They love it here. Others who visit are French, Americans, Britons and some from Poland,” he said.
Bakari, who has worked at the beach for about seven years, learnt German from listening to tourists. He also read books written in German.
“I developed an interest in German when I was in Class Six. I learnt more from tourists on the beach,” said the boat operator who has no secondary school education.
“German and French are more common here. If you are a sharp person you will pick the languages and with some little effort you will be able to speak fluently,” he said.
Other languages are also becoming popular with the beach operators, especially Italian.
At Mwaepe Fisherman Beach Restaurant, Johnson Mwalewa Jeffa, a waiter, speaks Italian fluently and even teaches operators the language at no fee.
“I learnt from friends. It is my turn to teach others. I am doing it for free so that they get skills and use them to earn a living. We do not have much education and we need to survive. Without the languages you cannot do anything,” said Mwalewa.
To survive on the beach, he said, one must be multilingual.
Frank Ngao started speaking French 20 years ago. He comes from Kilifi County but relocated to Diani after the hotel he worked at was closed.
His mastery of spoken and written French has earned him recognition as a competent tour guide. Hotels frequently invite him to do translations.
“After completing high school in 1991, I joined Alliance Française in Mombasa to learn French. I don't regret the move,” he said, adding that hardly a day passes without a hotel invitation.
He also has a grasp of German, which he said was easy to learn and speak. “French is a little bit hard to crack, it needs an open mind because of its different sounds,” he said.