East Africa changes with tourist hordes

Hemingway wrote of the snows of Kilimanjaro; Laurens van der Post of the majesty of the lakes and volcanic craters as seen from the air. Churchill, describing the eastern extent of the equatorial forest that reaches Uganda in these terms: huge trees jostle one another for room to live; slender growths stretch upwards –as it seems in agony- towards sunlight and life… Birds are as bright as butterflies; butterflies as big as birds.” Alberto Moravia observed that cleanliness and neatness are more visible in Africa than in Europe because Africa has no light and shade. The outlines of objects are drawn in the space of light.

Ever since the first white explorers returned to their countries and spoke of the wonders of the interior of the “dark continent”, Africa has held a special fascination for adventurers, wild-life enthusiasts, sun-worshippers and lovers of the exotic where the bright colours and patterns of women’s dress seem to imitate nature or blend with it. And, where too at Jinja, as the Nile pours out of Lake Victoria on its long journey to the Mediterranean, an old rule allows a golfer to pick up a ball from a hippo’s footprint.

East Africa is no stranger to international tourism. First, owing to the distance and difficulty of transport, only the more enterprising members of the European nobility and the North American financial aristocracy could afford the time or expense. In the last 40 years the game parks and tropical beaches have become accessible to the package tourist too.

Tourism is Kenya’s number one currency earner, ahead of horticulture and tea. It has not only picked up after the 1998 and 2002 terrorist bombings, but is breaking new records, and hopes to accommodate 5 million tourists by 2012.

International tourism, however, is a precarious business. The Western tourist had only to hear of a coup or civil war anywhere in Africa to change his holiday plans from Tanzania to Thailand or Jamaica. Now that the region is proving politically stable, and countries like Kenya are waging an aggressive publicity blitz in eastern Europe and the far East a noticeable upsurge in tourist bookings is taking place. Several airports in the area are upgrading their facilities; bulldozers are repairing the pot-holed roads leading to major tourist sites; and Virgin Atlantic starts a daily service to Nairobi next month, hoping to quickly increase to two  flights daily. Uganda too, with its Mountains of the Moon, repopulated game parks, mountain gorillas, and rich bird life on the islands in Lake Victoria, is also competing with its neighbours, after tourists boycotted the country during the times of Amin and his successors.

It is now the off-season for tourists -- due to the long rains and the equatorial “winter” -- but the hotels at the Coast and the lodges in the game parks are unusually crowded, and with tourists from all over the world. Tourism is Kenya’s number one currency earner, ahead of horticulture and tea. It has not only picked up after the 1998 and 2002 terrorist bombings, but is breaking new records, and hopes to accommodate 5 million tourists by 2012. This is good news for the barmen in the park lodges, the game wardens, the rangers who accompany climbers up Mount Kenya, the waiters and acrobats in the Coast hotels, and their families, as well as for the other 518,000 people (in a population of 35 million) and their dependants employed in tourism. The informal wood-carving and curios industry will also thrive. The transport network and the telecommunications sector will necessarily develop to keep pace.

Kenya is also in the process of offering top quality services to the big-spenders. These are already under way, with the hot balloon rides over the Masai Mara to observe the annual wildebeest migration, and the tented camps with their showers and champagne. However, tourism has its other side too.

For people, especially young people, living close to popular tourist venues, tourism means quick, ready money, and therefore little motivation to go to school and get an education. A young fellow who drops out of school will get a job in a hotel, or as a tour driver, even as a fisherman in the ocean, but will not advance. And so he remains in a state of dependency. The management posts in the hotel and tourism industry are taken by better educated people from the towns. Drugs and “sex tourism”, night-clubs and casinos have made their appearance, and some families are so poor they will not prevent their children earning money in this way.

Tourists are now arriving from China, Japan and Korea, but previously most had come from the West, bringing their lifestyle with them. Most tourists interact little with the local people. However, the people here notice how the visitors behave and they discuss it among themselves. Most people will reason as follows: these are the ways of the “mzungu” (the white man), and we respect them as such, unless they cause scandal. It is understood that the visitor comes to relax, and to learn something, and he leaves money on the way. He therefore helps us, and we learn from him what we think is good and useful and ignore or reject what we don’t.

In fact, some tourists have helped set up social projects. Instead of going straight from airport to game lodge or Coast hotel, they have ventured off the beaten track, or their package has included a visit to a Masai manyatta (homestead), or even to an urban slum or rural primary school. Touched by what they have seen, they decide to establish a small home for AIDS orphans, or send a regular donation to some worthwhile ongoing project.

However, over time and as it develops its full potential, the effects of tourism will be felt on a wider scale. Tourism brings glamour, introduces different customs and behaviour, and shows people what they have been missing materially. It removes people from their traditional background and takes them to the urban centres. The older generation mother of a family who did not attend school will continue to work the land as long as she can; her daughter, who has been educated, will have other plans, and will return to the ancestral home only to visit. She will marry, look for a job in town – and who will work the land?

In the case of Kenya now, and Uganda soon, tourism means development, and development means that much of Africa will go the way of the developed world: widespread migration to the urban centres, and the land to be cultivated by big land-owners. And the loss of worthy customs and traditions? To some extent, yes. But only to some extent. In Africa blood ties will always remain strong, and the many deeply-rooted traditions are here to stay.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda.


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