With Resort in Rear View, We Headed Out to Watamu and Malindi
We ventured out of the resort to get a feel of the local scene. On the way out we made a stop to get some drinks when we heard dancing, singing and music behind Neema Shop. It was a community meeting with some of the women performing a traditional dance.
We ate at this place called Car Wash Pub and Restaurant. I like these open air places that have no doors, barely any walls and can’t be locked up at night. It’s called Car Wash because right next door is where you get your car washed while you eat.
As I post this, I’m trippin’ on why I didn’t take any photos of the side of the restaurant where they wash the cars. It’s not fancy, but it gets the job done. Reminds me of the car wash in Mlolongo from my previous trip to Kenya. But I got distracted by a spider in a huge web from the tree to the restaurant about 10 feet in the air. This spider was about as big as my hand!
We made our way to “downtown” Watamu. Paved roads, lots of shops, even a casino. And, to my surprise, because of the Italian influence in the area from generations ago, there were a bunch of Italian restaurants. There are quite a number of Italians who live in the area as well. I’ve actually seen more wazungu in Watamu than in Nairobi.
What is wazungu you ask?
Mzungu is a Bantu language term used in the African Great Lakes region to refer to people of European descent. It is a commonly used expression among Bantu peoples in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Zambia.
The word wachizungu has a particular historical development in this region, dating back to the 18th century. Wachizungu used to mean “things of the aimless wanderers.” Literally translated it meant “someone who roams around aimlessly” or “aimless wanderer.” The term was first used in the African Great Lakes region to describe European explorers in the 18th century, apparently as a result of their propensity to get lost in their wanderings in Africa.
The word Muzungu comes from Kiswahili, where zungu is the word for spinning around on the same spot. That dizzy lost look was perfected by the first white people arriving in the African Great Lakes. Muzunguzungu is Kiswahili for a dizzy person. The term is now used to refer to “someone with white skin” or “white skin.”
In the Bantu Swahili language, the plural form of mzungu is wazungu.
Now I’m not a gambling man. It’s not a religious thing or lack of money thing. With odds so bad in any casino you go into, why not just flush money down a toilet and see if it comes back up in the bathtub? Gambling really just doesn’t make sense to me since everyone knows the house always wins.
Najwa, though, saw the machines in the casino — we were there exchanging dollars for shillings — and just had to play a game. We let her play a couple games of slots. She lost. Both times. A total of 20 KSH [a little less than a quarter].
While we were window shopping, Najwa was doing what kids her age do. Making new friends.
Watamu is a cool place. While shopping there, I didn’t get harassed as much as other places Kenya. More like every place in Kenya. There seems to be a little more diversity from other places I’ve visited; there might be at least 1 percent non-Kenyans residing there.
Unlike other places, though, it seems like everyone in Watamu has a motorcycle. Everyone. The roads are cluttered with motorcycles, people being ferried from one place to another. It’s their taxi system.
Another thing we noticed was the number of orphanages in the area. I could understand if it had one. Everywhere has an orphanage. But here, we saw 3 or 4 all within a mile or two of each other. I asked about this and was told that some of the orphans are there because they may have lost their parents to violence and there isn’t any extended family to take care of the kids. And then there are those orphans who were dropped off there by their parents, who still live in the area, but dropped off their kids there because they [the parents] simply couldn’t feed their kids. This way they know their child(ren) are eating.
And on the other end of the spectrum, orphanages are businesses and the more orphans you have, the more money you can make. There are some orphanages whose mission is noble. They help the kids. Then there are some that are factories, soliciting for more heads to get more money. It’s not to say the kids aren’t being treated well [beats me], but if it wasn’t for money, maybe they’d close shop.
Watamu doesn’t have a lot of career options. You either become a teacher, you farm or you work in the hotel industry. That’s it. Ot start an orphanage.
We also took a ride up north to Malindi. It’s a larger town than Watamu, big tourist attraction until just a little more north in Lamu, violence broke out scaring some of the tourists away.
Malindi has been a Swahili settlement since the 14th century. Once rivaled only by Mombasa for dominance in this part of East Africa, Malindi has traditionally been a port city for foreign powers. In 1414, the town was visited by the fleet of the Chinese explorer Zheng He. Malindi’s ruler sent a personal envoy with a giraffe as a present to China on that fleet.
The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama met Malindi authorities in 1498 to sign a trade agreement and hire a guide for the voyage to India, when he erected a coral pillar. The pillar stands to this day, though there have been calls by conservationists to take care of it, since soil erosion might make the pillar fall into the ocean. It is a fairly popular tourist attraction for both local and international tourists. In 1499 the Portuguese established a trading post in Malindi that served as a resting stop on the way to and from India. A church dates from this era.
Many traditional buildings survive, including the Juma Mosque and palace on the beach, a stretch popular with tourists.
Malindi is also cool. It’s much bigger, more crowded and seems to have a lot more to do than Watamu if you wanted to do more than hang around a resort. There’s a Nakumatt where we stopped by to grab some snacks. While I was in line, one of the baggers there saw me, figured out I was a Black American [they don’t really call us African Americans], and greeted me with, “My nigga…”
It caught me off guard. At first I was surprised to hear one Kenyan say that to another, but then I realized he was talking to me. I looked at him funny, just trying register the scenario, when he saw my confused look and, making sure he got it right, asked me if I was an American.
Thanks to Hollywood, the black American culture is so dominated with this image of us walking, talking and behaving like the music videos and movies that outside of America [and in many places inside of America], people don’t realize we don’t actually talk like that. Just as southern white people don’t behave the way Jeff Foxworthy tells it, we don’t behave the way Hollywood tells it.
Later we stopped by the market to look for some art. We did get a painting, a huge painting, for the kitchen that I’ll share once I get it mounted and hung.
But while we were there, it was obvious that tourism was down because of the nearby violence and the people were desperate for purchases. I almost feel bad talking him down about half price, but I know they triple the price when they see me coming. To put it in perspective, the painting would probably cost a couple hundred bucks, more framed or mounted, here in America. We got it for 3200 KSH [$35.16].
One of the guys followed us around, not stalking, more like a tour guide of where to buy stuff though it was a market with stalls where you buy stuff. He was annoying at first, but once he realized that we weren’t soft-hearted and willing to buy stuff we just didn’t want; that we bargain harder than the wazungu; and that we were leaving once we got the painting we wanted — he started talking like a regular person instead of a used car salesman, and made some interesting points.
It’s not that the shopkeepers like harassing people to buy their wares [not that I think it bothers them to do it either], tourism is down significantly so the volume of sales is gone. The market was kind of empty, though I figured it was because it was getting late in the day.
He said the shopkeepers know that what few tourists that do still come to the area willingly spend $25 per person to see a bunch of animals in the Marine Park, pay that much or more for food in restaurants, more for other activities, water sports, drinking at the bar, and especially how much they [I guess I should say we] spend per night at the resorts. The shopkeepers just want to feed their families, pay their kids’ school fees and just survive during a down market.
No, I didn’t buy more stuff. But it didn’t make sense, discouraged me from going to the Marine Park as we planned, and we found a significantly cheaper way to visit Gede Ruins [next post] than the ridiculous prices offered at the resort.
It didn’t help feed any kids or pay any rent, but I don’t feel as guilty for getting a steal for the painting.
If you don’t drive, the way to get around is with a boda-boda. What is a boda-boda you ask?
The boda-boda taxis are part of the African bicycle culture; they started in the 1960s and 1970s and are still spreading from their origin on the Kenyan-Ugandan border to other regions. The name originated from a need to transport people across the “no-mans-land” between the border posts without the paperwork involved with using motor vehicles crossing the international border. This started in the southern border crossing town of Busia (Kenya/Uganda), where there is over half a mile between the gates, and quickly spread to the northern border town of Malaba (Kenya). The bicycle owners would shout out boda-boda (border-to-border) to potential customers – not to be confused with poda-poda, which is a form of shared taxi in Sierra Leone.
We were just looking for suggestions of where to get some good local food, and asked a boda-boda driver. Obviously, since we had a car, there really wasn’t money-earning potential there, especially since we wouldn’t get on the back of a motorcycle with Najwa anyway.
Then again, who said we needed to actually ride with him? Have you ever paid for a taxi ride in which you drove behind the taxi? Considering it got us to this place called Jabreen Cafe which had some deliciousness in its dishes, it worked out for us.
We didn’t stay long, just spending half the day in Malindi. Preparing to go back, we were about to turn into the gas station to fill up when a bunch of big military style trucks drove past. When one of them passed, a bunch of the soldiers in the back were frantically waving and what appeared to be signaling us to pull to the side. But the truck kept moving as the soldiers got louder. But the truck never stopped. But the soldiers were obviously yelling at us.
When I was thinking they were mad about something, mad at us, who knows — they were trying to tell us we were turning into the exit side of the gas station and had to scoot up a few yards for the entrance. Our lives were in 0 percent danger but these guys were doing everything they could to help us not run into an exiting car we would’ve saw coming a mile away.
In America, we’d pause to see if the dumb@ss going in the exit got hit. And if they did, we would’ve said they deserved it, posted the video online then called for help.
I want to go back one day.