Jennifer Osei-Mensah sheds light on some lesser-known elements of Kenya’s tourism industry.
Kenya is a beautiful and very, very complicated country. In a previous article, the author correctly notes that some of the vestiges of colonialism do remain visible. However, it is reductive to narrow the country’s problems down to the cruel grip of neo-colonialism and the bastardisation of culture for tourist entertainment. Here is why.
English is one of the national languages of Kenya. It is, generally, people’s third spoken language, because tribal culture still reigns in the vast majority of the country. People learn their tribal language alongside Kiswahili, and then English later on, which is the language for business and, yes, tourism. Kiswahili is not strictly a Kenyan language – it is the first language of the Swahili tribe, but has evolved by way of heavy Arabic and English influences, and is now spoken across Eastern Africa (Tanzania has the most standardised form of Swahili). It has also evolved into Sheng, which is a street dialect spoken by young people in Nairobi. To say that the locals are disadvantaged by not being able to speak English is inaccurate, because Kenyan culture anticipates an impressive level of multilingualism. Plus, the phenomenon of developing economies speaking English in order to engage with international markets and access global tourism is very much a global issue, rather than a purely Kenyan one.
True, Nairobi is home to the largest urban slum in Africa, Kibera. But it is also home to an extremely diverse populace. There are numerous international neighbourhoods, often split by nationality as you travel further away from the centre of the city. In Nairobi, like in any other city, people tend to stick with their own group. It is important that Nairobi isn’t viewed as a snapshot of Kenya as a whole because few people would call Nairobi ‘home’. Many come to Nairobi from rural parts of the country to earn a living, and will return upcountry to see family. In terms of the richer parts of the city being compared to the poorer, it does make a stark and sad contrast. But this cannot be chalked up to colonialism alone. Recent financial interventions from more developed economies come not just from the West. Asian funding for infrastructure projects, particularly from China, has been on the rise over the last few decades, including partial funding for the new super-highway between Nairobi and Thika. Judge this as you please, but Chinese intervention should not be confused with British colonialism, and slums should not be confused with ‘Kenya’s traditions’.
Irresponsible tourism and the potential damages to local cultures is a world-wide issue. Tourism is a significant part of Kenya’s economy, being home to many stunning national parks, incredible wildlife and beautiful beaches. In 2015, the conflict with Somalia meant fewer tourists visited the country, causing income from tourism to fall by 3%. The tourism industry has thankfully since seen another increase. The author’s point about the Maasai people is interesting, and again points to international issues relating to colonialism and tourism. The Maasai are a nomadic tribe settled in Kenya and northern Tanzania. They have had to modernise to keep up with the changing country, but have demanded pasturing and grazing rights from several national parks in both nations, to retain their traditional way of life.
In some places a balance seems to have been struck between tourism and conservation – the Ngorongoro conservation area in Tanzania, for example, directs a chunk of tourist revenue to the Maasai people, who play in important role in conservation efforts. This is not to say that the Maasai have always benefitted from tourism, or that there haven’t been any drawbacks. Certain tour guides warn against visiting Maasai villages because doing so impacts negatively on the Maasai culture, as all tourists engage with is an artificial experience. While researching this article, I stumbled across a few blog posts written by tourists who regretted visiting Maasai villages because it was not apparent where the money from such visits goes. Conservation efforts do seem to be better in Tanzania than in Kenya. I don’t presume to have the answer to the complicated issue of responsible tourism, but I do think it’s possible to enjoy foreign cultures responsibly and sensitively; and visiting the Maasai and buying souvenirs should not be seen as a neo-colonialist act.
The point of this somewhat bitty article is that Kenya’s culture, economy and tourist industry is complex. It is rooted in various tribal traditions, which were interrupted by colonially-drawn national lines and are still competing with each other. The tourism industry is a large part of Kenya’s economy, and I feel it would be more damaging to completely avoid tourism in Kenya under the guise of cultural sensitivity, than to responsibly engage with the culture of this stunning country.