We may not pay top dollar, but sisi ndio tuko

One of many phone numbers that I have saved as ‘Kanye’ that is supposed to remind me of David Paul Kanyi blares on my phone. I pick it up and listen, knowing all too well that it can be anyone, from his landlord, his mother, his in-laws or even some guy on the street. Kanyi has no phone, so he has made a habit of calling me with any number, and I keep saving them without knowing whose phone he has used. 

On this case it is a lady, who asks me if I have seen Kanyi. No, I reply and say I hope he is well and OK. The lady goes off and for a moment, I am worried about Kanyi. I had met Kanyi in Diani in October and wanted so much to do his story and he has kept asking me what happened. As a journalist, you tend to get this question a lot when stories die. But this one has not. As Kenya is rocked with mounting political unrest, tourism is bound to take one for the gut. The domestic tourists, who has been instrumental in supporting tourism, are also cutting back on spending on holidays due to constrained incomes as a result of higher taxes and inflation as well as job culls.

When I later catch Kanyi he says, I have still not bought that motor bike. I was hoping he would want to know whether I was publishing the story or not. But he had more pressing needs. Did I have anything to spare. The situation may be dire more than we think.

I met Kanyi in October 2022, when I was making a leap of faith from the uncertainty of the bureau into even more uncertainty. But this story reminded me why I write. I was lucky to have stumbled upon it on the sidelines of a very interesting work trip in Diani.  

As one of the 4.5 million local Kenyans that once or twice sleep away from our beds in a hotel and can count as domestic tourists, expected to cushion the hospitality sector limping out of the Covid-19 crisis, I was almost inclined to cause a little inflation in Diani.

I am a man of small means, but like a butler who swings between access to the sanguine, jazz-filled air-conditioned lobbies and back to the torrid weather outside, as journalists, we get to travel at people’s expense, and sleep in hotels whose cost would gobble up our paychecks. So even after those cosy interviews with powerful people in high-end hotels, we can only afford to cause a little inflation at the seedier hotels that we can afford to patronise, and which are not star-rated.

After those conferences and interviews and filing copy back to the newsroom it almost feels like penance to spend a little bit of your money in the local economy and play our small part in generating the touted Kes146.51 billion as domestic tourists. If I were a foreign tourist, I would have had to make inquiries at the desk, the beautiful lady with a wry smile on her face, all polite would have gotten me a taxi, not a random one but maybe a relation, a friend or a business partner passing down the first contact of tourist receipts down established channels. 

But I am a local guy who thinks I have a better shot at seeing something different away from guided tours and find myself and a friend flagging down a tuk-tuk. The three-wheelers and their motorcycle cousins are the most dominant mode of transport in Kenya today, with annual registrations nearly tripling that of vehicles.

It offers affordable transport and we haggle down the drivers who are used to generous tips, revealing our identity as watu wa bara– from the interior of the country. Our identity is crucial for our rider’s answer when we ask him where the night action is, what the famous night clubs are the best here. I see him wrestle with the idea of what to suggest, trying to find the hotel that lies farthest away to maximise on distance and so his pay.

We, however, find local help, two other girls crammed inside with us, making what was built as a vehicle for three to accommodate five, with me sitting in an imaginary seat next to the driver. Manyatta, they reveal, is the place we are looking for.

Manyatta Night Club has gained notoriety for night thrills to the few foreign and local visitors as the decline in the hotel industry has forced establishments to look towards domestic tourism. The establishment is a glaze of mirrors, pastelled together with a criss-cross of patterns thrown about its walls. An engraved replica Malindi door leads into the empty bar room deserted by revellers who prefer to dance outside in the open air under the clutter of upside-down umbrellas that hang as decorations from the roof.

The blast of music is trapped in the vibrant skimpily dressed girls swirling out to hook the dream man, who will sweep them off their feet into a world of splendour, or in consolation, just for a night.

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When we settle on the high bar stools and order cold beer it doesn’t take long for one of the girls to make a move, but we politely decline. Perhaps endeared by the civility she asks for a beer instead, which we oblige her. Tourism, domestic or foreign, moves hand in glove with the sex trade, the girls, most of whom are not well educated, preying on the limited cash in the starved economy.

Underinvestment in education and economic pressures have placed Kwale among the 16 counties in the country with an estimated 1.8 million children out of school, mostly due to pregnancy, early marriages and child labour

The Kenyan government estimates the recurrent resource gap for basic education in the country has gone up nine-fold over the last five years, with the northern and coastal counties bearing most of the brunt. According to Kenya’s National Education Sector Strategic Plan 2018 – 2022 , the total resources available for basic education between 2018 and 2022 is Kes1.6 trillion against the required Kes1.86 trillion, a deficit of Kes239.6 billion over the five years.

I rise and go off for some burning issues, bumming a light from the boda boda riders. The boy, who looks barely out of his teens, lean and rather boyish looks underdressed in his black cardigan, denim shorts and open shoes for a boda boda rider. While the temperature around Kenya’s coastal town of Mombasa is relatively high necessitating for the light dressing, boda boda riders still have to wrap up in warm jackets to avoid catching cold in a country where respiratory diseases are the number one killer. 

As we share a smoke and a conversation in the warm evening pulsing with the throb of music vibrating from Manyatta, I learn why he is not your typical boda boda. David Paul Kanyi doesn’t own a motorcycle, but rents one from a ‘friend’ for a few hours in the evenings for Kes350. Sometimes, Kanyi rents a Tuk Tuk, but those are rare and in between.

He says he barely makes enough, most of his earnings going to fuel the motorcycle and to service the hiring fee. He has to make several trips to earn enough to live on. While the motorcycle industry is lucrative, generating an estimated Kes1 billion annually and employing  about one million Kenyans, those at the bottom of the food chain who hire the bikes make very little.

Kanyi believes the only way to break the cycle is if he owned his own bike; and from talks with his friends he believes he might just have a shot. He says the amount for which he is hiring the bike and the duration he is allowed squeeze the benefits out of the business is the reason he makes so little. He thinks he can make triple the money he is currently making if he had his own bike.

He wants to take one of those asset finance products that take a down payment of about Kes20,000 and stagger payments over one to two years. The asset finance model has penetrated many Kenyan urban areas such as Diani, whose residents are too poor to pay cash for new motorcycles. Buying motorcycles on loan from asset finance companies like Watu credit usually attracts additional charges over and above the principal, including interest and fees to cover GPS tracking and insurance costs. The companies slap defaulters with penalties of up to Kes5000 for a one week delay in repayment. 

With my alcohol and generosity muddling my judgement I feel moved to at least pay for his hiring fees. But how can I cloth my philanthropy in less pitiable garb? I think of buying his lighter but reconsider, instead opting to exchange it for a tour. He knew the place well, the places that hide in plain sight and I enjoy the thrill of slipping from the security of the main road establishments deep along unmarked paths into the unexplored interior.

Manyatta hotel is a popular nightclub in Diani that stands on the backyard of the once famous Two Fishes hotel, popular among the tourists as ‘Samaki Wawili’. There is scanty available information online on what happened to the massive hotel that was a darling of tourists in the 1980s and 1990s other than that it burned down around 1999 and was never rebuilt.

The decline of the beachfront edifice that is slowly decaying into ancient ruins like the Gedi is not an isolated case. The Diani beachfront is littered with similar tales of hotels that have gone bust, including Kenneth Matiba’s Jadini hotel as documented by the German vlogger The Daniel Life who captured the devastation of Kenya’s hotel industry by global terrorism and economic downturn.

“Many years ago the Diani Beach was crowded with lots of tourists. Since 15-20 years many hotels went bankrupt because of a lack of tourism. I remember a time, when there were so many tourists across the beach, from all the hotels, for instance Alliance Jadini Beach Hotel or the Two Fishes Hotel at the Diani Beach,” says the vlogger.

His vlog captures the poverty that followed the collapse of the hotels, the beach boys who still look to the sea, which ironically is estimated to have the potential of earning Kenya $4.8 billion over a decade from the Blue economy. The beach boys stare forlornly at the vast sandy beaches, empty of tourists and vacant curio shops full of struggling art.

But it is the stretch behind the hotels that reveals how deep the crisis runs. As Kanyi takes me through Kambi ya Moto, the slum that extends like a forgotten backwater crumbling from the entrails of Two Fishes, the devastation is more apparent. I try to make out what he is saying in the driving wind, he points out the houses falling apart from disrepair across yonder and tells me they used to be servants quarters serving the big hotels, but that they are now being rented out to locals, who live crammed together with no electricity.

Kanyi tells me he used to live there as well, but moved out because of the problems of the ghetto. He says his mother was recently arrested on an assault charge after a complaint was filed by a neighbour. Kanyi claims it arises from an old grudge and that the woman is using the law to square it out. He also says someone he knows recently brought home a girl and in the morning she turned up dead, without identification. creating a problem with the law.

Kanyi tells me it hadn’t always been this way, having lived a life of luxury as a child, his mother having been in an arrangement with a white man. As a journalist I find his story moving.

Forget the conference, interviews with authority figures and the important policy stuff. When you meet a story about the people behind the numbers, you know you have stumbled onto something. Over the last decade the number of foreign tourists arriving in Kenya has fallen from 1.78 million in 2011 to 1.1 million in 2015 before rising to 2 million in 2019. The recovery was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic that saw numbers plummet to 576,000 in 2020. 

But even as visitor numbers slowly pick up, there is little respite, given the cost of living is also going up in a feedback loop. The very decline in tourism during Covid, indirectly set in motion inflationary pressures from lower stock of foreign currency that has caused the exchange rate to plunge. The currency has declined almost 30 percent to 130.9 units against the greenback since January 2020, coinciding with the decline in tourist receipts that contributes to the country’s dollar holdings.

The collapse of the tourism sector over the last decade on threats of terrorism and the recent pandemic has had a lasting impact, whose cause remains invisible to the population here. They can’t explain why things have gone south and Kanyi blames the crisis on witchcraft. He claims neighbours who do not wish each other well have poisoned the town with bad juju. 

I had arranged to meet him in Manyatta the next day, a travelling back-in-time experience when we used to agree to meet at a specific location at a specific time, being unable to communicate as there were no mobile phones. Well, Kanyi still lives in those times since ‘aliweka simu rehani’- he pawned his phone.

Manyatta club looks bare with empty seats sticking out like wood set for a pyre. I ask his friends if they have seen Kanyi, and they assure me he will come. Boda Boda riders like Kanyi have to scramble for customers, jealously guarding territory by operating from specific stages. When he finally arrives he is pleasantly surprised that I kept my word to look for him the next day and it was not my alcohol talking when I paid him Ksh500 and told him to keep the change. I order a fizzy tonic water and him a soda and we settle down to talk. The bartender is polishing the bar. She has on dried up makeup and her eyes are sleepy from working all night.   

Kanyi is convinced the man he calls his stepfather, Leonard Kessel, was bewitched by jealous neighbours, which explains why he has never returned to Diani since 2015.

Alienda kwao ulaya na hajawaihi rudi,’’ the 22-year-old says while rearranging his thoughts after I reveal that I am a journalist keen on the story he had recounted the previous night. ‘‘Alipigwa mabomu huyo, ushanielewa? Mambo ya madawa. Huku watu wana fitina.

He tells me the family of four used to live in relative prosperity when his mother was dating the white man. The Mzungu was staying at Southern Hotel and had gone out looking for an African experience. As fate would have it he made inquiries from a beach boy called Robert who knew Kanyi’s mother and introduced them. Kanyi says the beach boys eat well, meaning they are compensated by the women, a symbiotic relationship that can last for as long as the tourist keeps the relationship going.

He says the step father used to come every December for three weeks from 2003 to 2015 and during that time they lived like kings and even the beach boy was well catered for. “Nakumbuka hizo siku siamini kama ni mimi,” he says.

Kanyi said after the white man disappeared from their lives poverty struck. His mother, no longer able to fend for the family, sent him and his siblings upcountry to live with his late father’s relatives. He dropped out of school and after what he describes as a strenuous period with his relatives, he returned to Diani, hoping to make a living where his roots were. But his chances are clearly slim. With a population of around 100,000 inhabitants, Diani is a constituency in Kwale County which has a poverty gap (which shows the depth and incidence of poverty) of 41.8 percent, compared to a national average of 12.2 percent and is heavily reliant on tourism. 

As one of the domestic tourists I have played my small part in putting money in circulation in the tourism economy. I asked Kanyi to give me a ride back to the hotel at an inflated cost and asked if he could take me round to a place where I could get some mementos. Like the smiling receptionist, Kanyi would not just take me to any random curio seller but maybe a relation, a friend or a business partner passing down the tourist receipts through established channels. Kanyi takes me to his sister who sells the ‘latest fashion’ deeras. He asks her to take care of me, meaning my pricing may be good. Even though I know I will probably spend less than Kes5000 on a few items like fridge magnets compared to the average Kes105,479 ($860) foreign tourists spent during the bumper years in 2019. For me, it is bargain after bargain, one shilling less than I am asked for until the tuk-tuk rider on my way back tells me just what reveals the difference between the visitors and us, substitutes; It is our money, gleaned over minimum wage jobs it doesn’t flow as easily as the dollar. 

Americans raising rates have made the dollar the most coveted currency over the past 20 years, that would buy you more Kenyan shillings that translates to higher tips, buys the curios above market rates, fuels the sex trade and the logistics that comes with it.

“We are happy that money from visitors (tourists) is coming back. It is easy money so the women in the business also give it away very easily. Easy come easy go, and we benefit, we can make up to Kes2000 a day,” Ongeri, a tuktuk driver, said.

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