Watamu: the ugliness of a beauty spot

Look again at the roping off of Europeans, at home or abroad
Paul Knott
10 August 2011

The beach at Watamu, near Malindi in Kenya is a beautiful place. A broad horse-shoe shaped bay with large rocks standing guard at the mouth to deflect the force of the Indian Ocean away from the bathers.

Sadly the human scene on the beach day is less idyllic. Despite the wide expanse of the sands, a group of about forty white Europeans are huddled together on adjacent sunbeds inside a square cordon marked by a rope laid on the sand. Within their territory, they preen, chatter and fiddle with expensive electronic toys. Most seem oblivious to the gaggle of Africans surrounding them in the hope of catching some crumbs from the rich man’s table. The Africans appear inhibited by the rope from taking the last few steps to approach the Europeans directly. They take their chance when the visitors leave the cordon to go to the sea and, in fairness a few of the tourists stop to talk amiably with them before stepping back over the rope into their affluent sanctuary.

One supplicant works the beach with particular intensity. He is a model of misdirected effort and initiative, criss-crossing the sands at an indecent pace for this languid environment to make his pitch to any European willing to listen or unable to escape in time. In another life he would have been an energetic timeshare salesman at a European holiday resort.

He says he is a Somali Christian called Simeon and the only member of his immediate family to have escaped a horrific church burning by an Islamist militia that had briefly caught the attention of the western media a week earlier. He tells of a harrowing sea voyage in a rickety boat to safety in Malindi and points vaguely in the direction of the other end of the bay to a vessel that no longer appears to be there. He requests the fare to travel to Nairobi to join his relatives in the refugee camps there.

Simeon’s tale could be true. There is no way of knowing, at least not without asking questions and engaging him in further conversation. None of the tourists seem keen to do this – Simeon’s approach is too high pressure and low charm. Nor does his appeal to Christian fellow-feeling have the impact he anticipates on contemporary Europeans. His credibility is also undermined by his not having the distinctive looks of a Somali. And, despite his ostentatiously proclaimed lack of Swahili, he appears to know many of the locals on the beach rather well for someone who has only been there a few days, even allowing for his gregariousness.

The sun sets and the tourists prepare to go back to their hotels for dinner. There is a desultory final appeal from the people beyond the rope, some gently motion their hands to their mouths to indicate their desire for food and others hold their babies aloft. Simeon is by this point beseeching on his hands and knees, surging against the invisible force field marked by the rope. But it is too powerful and he is unable to breach it before the Europeans return to their affluent world. The Africans drift off home too. They look weary, with the dead eyes of poverty and lost pride.

Some months later, I emerge from the Metro station onto Milan’s Piazza Duomo and am gently surrounded by another group of Africans. They are attempting to make a few cents by tying decorative pieces of coloured string around the forearms of passers-by. Some of the would-be vendors look listless but a few are more voluble and insistent. Either way, most of the Europeans deal with them as they do the numerous pigeons – as just another nuisance to be sidestepped on their journey across the busy square. It seems probable that these Africans are amongst those who have risked their lives in search of work and the affluent life inside the big rope of Europe’s borders. But they are just as excluded from it here as they were at home. This may be a different beauty spot and a different collection of people but the same stark contrast in their circumstances remains. And a rope, this time a tiny, coloured one, still demarcates the boundary between them.


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