Priya Patel questions the impact of Kenya’s tourism industry on the local population.
Over half a century has passed since Kenya gained independence from Great Britain. During the build-up to my visit, I was excited at the prospect of experiencing an unfamiliar culture. However, once there, it was hard not to notice the extent to which the country is geared towards a Western tourist. As a Modern Languages student, I was intrigued to discover the prevalence of English, one of the two official languages of the country. I marvelled at the irony of tourists not being limited by their lack of Swahili, but rather the locals’ disadvantage of not being able to speak English, due to its increasing necessity for employment.
In the busy and bustling capital city of Nairobi, I discovered the many distinct neighbourhoods, and took particular interest in one named Westlands. It was immediately clear that this was the tourist district, hosting the majority of international hotels. One of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Nairobi, it was a residential area in the first half of the 18th century, under British rule. Now, it has a reputation as the ‘international’ or ‘Western’ neighbourhood, home to the majority of Nairobi’s expatriate population. While driving around, I noticed the shameful juxtaposition of massive multimillion-pound hotel chains alongside the sea of shanty shacks that thousands of Kenyans call home. Western culture, imposed on the country during its period of colonisation, continues to encroach on Kenya’s traditions.
I was relieved to at last be exposed to Kenya’s breath-taking natural beauty in the plains of the Maasai Mara. There, I noticed the lasting effects of Britain’s merciless colonial control on the native inhabitants of the Mara. During the years of colonisation, the Maasai people were known for taking a strong stance against the British. Now, the Maasai have been forced to accept the growing Western presence in the country, and many have felt compelled to participate in the tourism industry. A local Maasai tour guide explained to us the importance of appealing to Western travellers; many have abandoned the traditional Maasai dress in favour of shirts and trousers, and have even adopted an English name.
I found the Maasai to be forward looking, optimistic people, more than willing to share their extensive knowledge of their rich history and Kenya’s unique geography. In Kenya, tourism is the second largest source of foreign exchange revenue, contributing many millions to the economy each year. However, it appears that this income is creating an increasingly polarised Kenya, as evidenced by the stark contrast in wealth in the country’s capital. In the case of the Maasai, I couldn’t help but find myself wondering whether these historically private people should have to dilute their unique culture for our benefit.