Beach boys of Mombasa

Mohammedi, JJ, Gerald and Rashid ply their trade on the blistering sands of Kenya. Their customers are Europeans; what they sell is pleasure. In the first of a series on aspects of Africa, Patrick Miles reports
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8AM: Mohammedi wakes, sips some brackish water and walks the two miles to Diani Beach. The tide is still low, but the white sand already reflects the sun uncomfortably for the new arrivals from Europe. Two Dutch women and a single American man are on their first full day of a fortnight's holiday on the Kenyan coast. The women, from Rotterdam, have been here before and have recommended the many delights of the resort areas about 30km south of Mombasa to their friend from Phoenix, Arizona. Rather than a big hotel, this time they have chosen a quiet, self-catering cottage on a small, privately owned estate a little further south from the main tourist throng. Paying £5 a day each for accommodation, they have plenty of Kenyan shillings to spare.

An askari (security guard) stands on the white stone wall that surrounds the cottages, wielding a strong stick. He ignores Mohammedi, who waits for the Dutch women and American man for whom he has arranged a boat trip. By 9.15am they have failed to show up, so Mohammedi drifts off down the beach to bitch with his mates about the tourists who broke their word.

Mohammedi will not sulk for long. He will meet some more Europeans who have come to spend part of their winter on a beach about three degrees south of the Equator, where seafood comes flapping up to your door, the warm sea sucks out the city poison, a coral reef lines miles of coastline, and where the local people are only too willing to provide anything that might bring pleasure. And Mohammedi has a licence, a piece of paper tucked into his shorts that pronounces him a "beach operator".

The "beach boys", as the guidebooks and visitors call them, offer a range of goods and services not found in the local supermarket, which swing wildly in price depending on the gullibility of the buyer. Custom-made, hand-carved ebony key-rings and name-plates form a large and legitimate part of their trade; rides to nearby islands in fishing boats or tours to the Shimba Hills game reserve can be a bargain. But then their services move into shadier territory. Marijuana is ubiquitous, but illegal. The boys will sell ganja to the tourists as long as they are discreet; speed, cocaine and heroin are never less than a day away.

Then there is sex. These young Kenyans have two basic approaches: if you are male, there is always someone's "sister" willing to oblige; if you are female, one of the boys themselves will be available. But then many of the women who come here are well aware of that. It is often their sole reason for doing so.

All the boys on the beach, and the visitors from abroad, are aware of the Aids problem - but the Kenyans rarely discuss it. They view the disease with the same phlegmatic attitude they have towards all manner of sickness and death. They do, however, use condoms - when they can afford them. Mohammedi said he would always use one with a woman he didn't know; but he didn't think he would need to in a long-lasting relationship. Greater awareness, especially among the men, is necessary.

11AM: Mohammedi is hanging out with the boys: Omari, Rashid, JJ, Abdul and Fabrizio. They are lying on the sand in the shade of a coconut palm, relaxed, but eyes still peeled for the distant glow of a white person. Last night's revellers have emerged from the guest-houses and are picking their way over the rocks and around the racing crabs to the Indian Ocean. Fabrizio and JJ spring to their feet and approach their prey with warbling cries of "jambo" (hullo). Fabrizio offers grass, delivered within the hour; JJ has some "brown sugar" (heroin) and he wants to move it quickly. Although all born of the same dirt-poor, sometimes violent, society, the aims of the boys differ. Mohammedi wants to take Westerners on safaris in Kenya and Tanzania while JJ wants to join the army so, he says, he can carry a gun and make money.

Mohammedi is taking us snorkelling in his fishing boat, out to the sand reef near where the coral abounds, with Rashid, his mate, manning the sail. "I have been here 10 years on the beach," Mohammedi says. "I went to school for seven years then left at 15. I worked once on a glass-bottom boat, but I stopped because the pay wasn't worth it. But I needed to survive, so I had to look for something. I live with my sister and her three children. I support them all. It's tough - but not really tough. People are born to help others, so what I get I must spend on my family."

All the beach operators have a piece of paper with a number, he explains. "We pay 50 shillings [50 pence] a year to the main village. In the high season, I can make 800 shillings [£8] on a good day. In the rainy season, there aren't many people around and I can maybe only work one day a week. People in Nairobi tell visitors to stay away from the beach boys, but they're just jealous because we have a good life. In two years, I hope I will be married, have children and have someone to look after me."

4PM: Back on the beach, Fabrizio has ensnared a Japanese couple and is arranging to take them that night to Ibiza, the thumping disco in the nearest village along the coast road. The visitors are proving difficult to sway, but Fabrizio is on good form and refuses to take no for an answer. He will probably get about £2 if he accompanies them, and a few beers.

In one of the white stone cottages, a few yards from the sea, Eva, from Frankfurt, comes every year to stay for a few weeks. She is a 49-year- old divorcee whose children have left home, and she has found a new lease of life by the ocean in Kenya. Mwese, her 21-year-old Kenyan boyfriend, used to sell soft drinks and food from a makeshift bar on the beach. That was how he met Eva, who said she was delighted to find a man who was willing to give her unconditional physical love. Mwese was content to tag along after her, to the shopping centre, the village and the beach, despite disapproving looks from locals and tourists alike.

Eva said she sent money to Mwese and his family from Germany and had visited his house and met his relatives. But Eva is bossy and talks to Mwese as if he is a child. She gets cross when he talks to his friends, particularly if the friend is a woman. She talks frankly of their passionate affair and how it has rejuvenated her. But she betrays her feelings by saying: "I am trying to teach him things around the house, simple domestic chores, but it's impossible, like trying to teach a monkey. He has no idea." Mwese is perhaps fortunate that he has not been lured to Germany, for many of his compatriots have gone with their girlfriends or boyfriends to Europe, not always with happy results.

Gerald is a schoolfriend of Mohammedi's, about the same age, 25, and similarly attractive, with perfect gleaming teeth, rippling muscles and not an ounce of fat. Gerald was a beach boy, then a houseboy in one of the big hotels. There, a visiting Italian man took a strong fancy to him. The Italian propositioned him, Gerald refused and reported the incident to his superior. But it was hushed up because the Italian was wealthy and influential. The Italian tried a few more times but Gerald refused him, though he did allow the man to take some photographs of him.

Some months later, an attractive young Italian woman came to stay in the hotel and quickly befriended Gerald. A few weeks later, Gerald was on a plane to Naples, having been successfully seduced by the woman. On arrival, he was taken to a house, locked in a room and, from that day on for two weeks, was visited by his original male suitor and a companion and repeatedly raped. Eventually he escaped, fled to the authorities and was given assisted passage back to Mombasa.

9.30PM: Half a mile from the beach is Temura, the only decent, reasonably priced restaurant. Temura is also the venue for a captivating nightly show. Every evening the occupants of a group of small rented rooms behind the main building emerge for the short walk to Shakatak. It is a slow parade of handsome women, their fine bodies dressed in a few inches of leather skirt, a millimetre of Lycra, layers of red satin, white taffeta, and shoes from hell. They are heading off in the hope of finding a man at the disco where the tourists go after dinner. They could take him back to their room or spend the night at his place. But for some customers, the latter venue is out of the question because they are staying with their wives in a resort hotel. We spotted one man in Shakatak grappling with a young Kenyan woman for hours. The next time I saw him, he was in a tour group at Mombasa airport, waiting with his wife and children for the flight home.

Inside Shakatak, the disco is warming up. "All that she wants is another baby" starts thudding through chest cavities. That's the last thing these women want: eight of the 12 girls I spoke to, at an average age of 20, had a baby at home, being looked after by a relative or a paid nanny. If they connect tonight, they can make around 500 shillings (£5). Behind the bar, Mary Munywoki looks on with benevolent disdain as her countrywomen ply their wares. She earns 5,000 shillings serving drinks, but it takes her a month to do it, working from 8pm to 6am each night. She has a young child, too, in the care of her grandmother, but she resists the temptation to become a prostitute. Mary is tall, athletic, intelligent, humorous and attractive. She would like to have a boyfriend, but for longer than one week.

2AM: "Blues time at Shakatak," says the DJ. Five couples take to the floor: four of them comprise a middle-aged woman and a young Kenyan man. The men appear to be completely sober, but they are propping up their partners, who have arrived from their lobster and riesling dinners in an inebriated and amorous state. The white women have their eyes closed, their heads thrown back, their arms groping and gripping the bodies of their boyfriends. The fifth dancing couple is a white man with a black girl. The air has become a wet cloud of smoke. Mary leans across the bar, supporting herself with her forearms, suppresses a sigh and serves another customer. Four hours to go, then she will flag down an early-morning minibus, link up with a bus in Ukunda, then ride the 15 miles to Likoni, where she will sleep for a few hours before tending to her son.

6AM: Mary waits for the bus as dawn breaks. Back at the beach, three recent arrivals from Europe have downed their last beer and are taking their new Kenyan friends back to their guest-house. Later in the day, after their sleeping companions have returned to their bare rooms in Ukunda, they will let the ocean soothe their battered heads and bodies. Mohammedi will be waiting for them on the blinding sand, willing to forgive and forget the broken agreement of the previous day - and ready to provide his services again. Nothing on offer is ever far from the water's edge, so both parties are content. The tourists have their tropical paradise for two weeks, then they are gone. Mohammedi and his friends have their humour, their peace of mind and their money in this precarious environment, and they are not going anywhere: the beach boys of the endless summer. !


GETTING THERE: Bucket shops sell return tickets to Mombasa from around £300, for example: Connections (0171- 495 5545) offers flights between 3 May and 14 June for £369. Trailfinders (0171-938 3232) provides flights to Mombasa for £451 return from 16 April to 15 June.

STAYING THERE: Diani Beachalets, PO Box 26, Ukunda, Mombasa (00 254 127 2180). A taxi from Mombasa costs around £20. A chalet with one bedroom and bathroom costs from £9 a night; two bedrooms and two bathrooms from £16 a night; four bedrooms and two bathrooms from £21 a night. The chalets are self-catering. Limited groceries and drinks can be bought from the office, and there are restaurants and shops nearby. Fresh fish, fruit and vegetables are delivered to the chalets daily. Cooks and nannies are available for hire.