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"A big sign in the restaurant proudly boasts that a portion of each person's fee is contributed to the village development fund. What the sign doesn't say is that it's only about 5 cents (US) per head."
- Christina Jordan

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Kenya's forgotten island
by Christina Jordan, Uganda
Mar 21, 2000

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I loved these hours in the lamplight glow. We learned the village gossip, and who was related to who (the culture allows cousins to marry, so actually the entire village was related!). We learned about the island's past -- as a strategic place where Arab slave traders lived for many centuries with their Tanzanian wives; bombardment of the island by the British on the Kenya side and the Germans on the Tanzanian side during WWII; and the island's role as a sanctuary during the Mau Mau uprising.

In 1984, there was an article in Kenya's leading newspaper about Wasini entitled "Kenya's Forgotten Island." That was the year Mr. Masood built the island's first restaurant, introducing tourism to the island for the first time, amidst a huge uproar from the villagers. Eventually they realized that there was potentially much to be gained-- employment, money to fund schooling for the children, the building of water tanks and a dispensary. But the relationship between tourism and Wasini is still a very fragile one.

Masood's first restaurant has been sold to foreigners, who feed hundreds of divers each week on their way back from day trips to a nearby marine park. A village walk is included in the $75 price, and a big sign in the restaurant proudly boasts that a portion of each person's fee is contributed to the village development fund. What the sign doesn't say is that it's only about 5 cents (US) per head.

These guests are "not allowed" to buy anything in the village-- any local guide whose group comes back with souvenirs bought from the villagers loses his job. Another restaurant, also owned by foreigners, skips the village altogether in the package they offer. Money spending tourists come and go, but nobody on the island benefits in any way.

Then there is Mr. Masood, whose primary aim in building up his hotel is to bring development to his people. As soon as he can afford a generator and a proper shower system, he plans to market Wasini as an island paradise, and set up workshops for the village women to make and sell handicrafts. He's already managed to put a lot of the infrastructure in place... but at what cost will his dreams come true? Yes, development would mean electricity someday, and perhaps even running water, somehow. Medicine, schools, employment.. important gains.

But you have to wonder if the peaceful village, with its strong religious traditions and hakuna matata rhythm will stay intact if tourism increases significantly. Will Jambo! Karibu! Habari! become but hollow echoes of a forgotten past, as opposed to the genuine invitation to share food, conversation and experiences that they are on Wasini today?

The dhow owners have already learned well how to take advantage of tourists by overcharging for the short 15 minute crossing from the mainland to the island whenever they can (the going price ranges between $10 and $50!), and the smallest children -- but only the children, never the adults like in more touristy places -- beg for money and gifts when they get the chance. Early signs of strain in the Wasini/tourist relationship?

Perhaps the foreigners' way of keeping the tourists away from the village may actually be better, in some ways. It's kind of like Robinson Crusoe, who found he could be happy with the simple island life -- when he finally saw the boat to take him to civilization, was it really a good thing?

Perhaps my concerns are selfish ones, since I personally would hate to see a place like Wasini lose the special unspoiled charm it held for me. On the other hand, I find it so sad that tourists would go there and NOT want to get to know the lovely, friendly people. It's a double-edged sword, and there are no easy answers.

But one thing is certain: Wasini Island, as we were fortunate enough to experience it, was "eco-tourism" at it's very finest. My toenails will eventually lose their teardrop splashes, but my memories of Wasini will forever bask in the sun. "Hakuna matata" (which they really DO say, all the time!) is a wonderful state of mind and being that I hope I can hang onto for a long, long time.

Koheri! ("Goodbye!")

Christina's got a tale from Uganda too!

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