Act now to save Watamu’s pride

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Act now to save Watamu’s pride


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We shape our own lives, identity, and even national identity through the values we hold and the decisions they drive, every day. Which should give us great pause for thought when we define our tourism industry and take our planning decisions, as a recent visit to Watamu recently brought home to me powerfully.

For Watamu, it seems, is undergoing an extreme identity change.

My first inkling, and there’s no doubt all the years of tourism undersubscription have made this worse, was in a second-row resort, stood at the gate waiting for a tuk-tuk and in gentle conversation with the resort’s manager.

The gate opened early and in came one of four new guests, an elderly man from Switzerland, although it doesn’t matter what nation he hailed from.

The whole group of four were in their 70s, by my guess. So, in came this one man with a local Kenyan girl, who looked probably 14.

The manager asked for her ID, oops she didn’t have it — her underage status confirmed for me right there.

Rather awful, but a second in passing. Until two minutes later the gate opened again, another of the men, with another girl, no ID.

Then a third girl arrived for one of the men who had been waiting at the gate, no ID.

There was nothing pretty about those teenagers heading off to the old men’s villas, yet the strangest thing is that I had actually never associated Watamu with sex tourism in the same way as other coastal resorts.

In my own mind, it’s a natural place, a centre of eco-tourism, it’s about the marine park and turtles, and snake parks and Gede Ruins and the like.

Yet the whole incident brought back to mind a visit I had made in far-off Kwale, where we had visited a local high school that my guide had helped fund.

We went into a classroom of 17-year-olds and asked them what they planned to do from school.

Many answered university, which was all great. Until after we left and my guide said actually, most of them will end up in the sex industry, there isn’t the money or the support to get many of these kids onwards into more education, and the work is in hotels or in sex.

And true enough Kwale is one of Kenya’s most poverty-stricken counties, despite all the wealth along the sea’s edge.

So, too, is Kilifi. So this is how the young girls are sold to rather unpleasant 70-year-old white men. But the bigger shock took longer to emerge. That Watamu resort, it turned out, was up for sale. I moved to another one and learned that was being sold too.

Hard times. But, in fact, a lot of the local resorts are up for sale right now and for another reason: because Watamu is changing.

It has approved for construction the country’s tallest building at over 60 floors, right by the sea.

The design is hideous, and I mean literally appalling. I have never in my life seen a building so phallic — and if you’re unfamiliar with the word phallic, please look it up.

This beach-side monstrosity has ‘sin city’ built into every vein of its design.

And so there it is, Kenya, which attracted international film stars to its northern coast, which has turtles, and whales and dolphins, and coral, and marine parks, and eternal sunshine, and immense beauty, could be and continue to be one of the most loved and sought-after beach destinations in the world.

Or we can sell our school girls, build monster tower blocks that look like 350-foot high sexual organs on the coast, and create our resorts of sin.

Indeed, I even asked one local, “so what do you think of the new tower?”

“It will bring business,” he said. Well, yes, selling your daughters for sex to old men is business, if that’s what Kenya wants to be and to stand for: we can be the world’s prostitutes. And there it is, values define our identity.

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