Link to published article, Kenya tourism tanks amid increasing violence
DRAFT of “Tourism and ‘Terrorism’ “– AJE
Mombasa July 28th, 2014
MOMBASA – It is the first evening of Islam’s Eid al Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan. Wealthy Mombasa residents – mainly of Arab descent – flock to Café Mocha, inside Cinemax Plaza, a gated mall in the suburb of Nyali. Women in sequined hijabs swan in with designer handbags slung on their arms. Almost everyone comes to the café to smoke fruit-flavored sheesha. The outdoor scene is as close as Kenya gets to Dubai, and plays like an Islamic version of the ‘70s film about the ‘50s, American Graffiti. Young men in Ray-Bans and headbands the colors of the Palestinian flag rev hotrods in the mall’s parking lot.
Less than five minutes away by car, Tamarind Village—which offers luxury rental apartments for tourists—is a virtual ghost town. At breakfast time, its dining room is empty.
But things have not been so quiet on the tourist beat.
A couple of weeks earlier in July a Russian tourist was shot dead near Mombasa’s Fort Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Police decided it was a robbery. Three weeks later assailants shot a German woman at point blank range from behind while she and her Ugandan travel companion were visiting the open market, also in Old Town. The woman died instantly and her friend sustained a bullet wound in the leg and survived.
I wasn’t sure visiting Old Town by myself was such a good idea.
Emerging like an apparition from the Tamarind’s desolateness was a man in a crisp white robe and kofia – hat. I recognized him – Hassan Ali Joho, the Governor of Mombasa County. I mentioned I was a journalist in town and, eventually, about my wariness about venturing to Old Town.
“Don’t worry about security,” said the notably mellow 41-year old politician. “Please join me for Eid al Fitr Baraza celebration at the Treasury Square”.
Visiting Old Town that day doesn’t seem a good idea to me.
“Come,. I’ll send a car for you in one hour,” the Governor insisted.
So he did.
“Mohammed” (not his real name), the governor’s personal driver, collected me in a white four-door Toyota around noon. We drove from the Nyali suburb across the creek bridge to Old Town on the island. Our vehicle was inconspicuous but the window’s weren’t tinted and I felt like a target. I assumed I wouldn’t bump into any other white women from North America at the Eid Baraza. I asked Mohammed where the two tourists had been shot dead. He explained that they’d been killed in the Byzantine alleys inside Old Town, far from the main road. He smiled when I wrapped my head wrapped in a hijab.
“Don’t worry, you’re safe,” said Mohammed. “You are with the governor.”
It was a holiday; shops were closed and the streets were more or less empty. The colonial-era Treasury Square with its faded colors is the traditional venue for Eid Baraza. All the buildings around the square are protected by the National Museums of Kenya. Still, I expected a mob scene – a riot – not unlike the melee I’d seen on the local news when police were arresting youths at a controversial mosque in the run-down section of Majengo. LINK What I found instead was a clean, well-organized, assembly of Mombasa residents of all ages seated in rows under white tents.
Nevertheless, I stuck close to Mohammed, who led me by hand through the crowd to the area where the Governor, the senators and other VIPs were sitting. I was then introduced to taller fellow, apparently one of the Governor’s body guards, who guided me to the opposite side of square where the media sat. Clearly, someone decided I didn’t belong there, so a third man held out his hand gently leading me to where the well-dressed VIP women sat.
As I made my way through the crowd, I glanced around for other ‘mzungus’, but far as I could tell I was the only one there. My presence drew stares, for sure, but I didn’t detect an iota of hostility. The only unruly guests were children in fancy dress playing behind their seated mothers. Armed security was everywhere, but they were in the employ of the county of Mombasa, not the state. In fact, I was more afraid of police arriving and randomly arresting and shooting people than I was of anyone attending the celebration. (I later learned the reason women are separated from men at most public gatherings is for the sake of security; should a husband and father be assassinated, the wife and mother will hopefully remain unharmed).
Though Eid celebrations are a religious event, they are sometimes criticized for focusing on politicians and their platforms. Security seemed a pressing and apt topic in Mombasa.
Most of the women in the VIP section were brassy, tough and yet appeared to command respect from their male counterparts. I didn’t understand all of what the politicians were saying but anytime the word “tourism” and “security” peppered a speech these women clapped and hooted “kweli!” – it’s the truth! It was like being among a fleet of Oprahs and her fans.
Occasionally, I asked a lady seated next to me to identify a politician. One senator, she explained, was saying that in order to ensure peace and security husbands needed to stop chewing miraa (an herbal stimulant) on weekends and pay more attention to their wives and children. This resulted in particularly loud applause.
Mishi Mboko, the Mombasa County Women’s Representative, is particularly vocal – to a fault, some feel. Just a month earlier police had accused her of “inciting violence and disobedience of the law” for saying, “Kenyans are going to bring revolution for this country. Enough is enough! Revolution and sovereignty are with the people.”
“There are two tribes that think they own the country,” she allegedly said, “and we want to tell them ‘chuma chao tunacho’“. The words, said police, were intended to incite ethnic contempt and hatred. Translated literally, the phrase means “your metal is on the fire”. Figuratively – and as addressed to the opposition – it may be interpreted as ‘we know what your plans are’ and, some argue, interpreted as a threat.
Governor Joho and Senator Hassan Omar escorted Mboko to court, where she denied all charges.
Before the celebration ended I left for my hotel.
The next evening I met the Governor at one of his two apartments at the Tamarind Village. It was meant to be a formal interview, however when I met him the long white robe had been replaced by a white Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt and a pair of madras Bermuda shorts. Of course, no politician is without his or her controversial baggage. He said it had been his first day back in the office after Eid celebrations. He was understandably tired and hungry. I decided not to get into anything off topic.
He ordered a Tamarind speciality, the Chocolate Explosion”, his favorite dessert, and instructed the waiter to return every five minutes with refills of sheesha (aka hookah) for us both. The waiter kept locking himself out of the apartment forcing the Governor to get up off the couch every five minutes.
For about two hours we discussed matters relating to security. Who was behind the Mpekatoni – Lamu County massacres? Was al-Shabaab acting alone? To which he replied, “Where was the money coming from?”
Eventually, the remarkably relaxed politician stretched out on the couch – and fell fast asleep.
Categories: Conflict In Context - Field Notes