27-08-2021 by Freddie del Curatolo
So-called 'sustainable' tourism is probably a utopia.
It belongs to certain articles in eco-magazines and cleverly retouched photo reports of uncontaminated beaches (because you can only get there by boat), endless savannahs (where poaching proliferates) and unexplored mountains (where only drones can reach).
Hermitages for billionaires where, however, there is no heliport, oases of a thousand and one nights in lunar deserts where wi-fi is a must, otherwise how can you make 94% of the non-elected die of envy?
Yet if there is one country where you could still support sustainability, it is Kenya.
If we went around and searched every nook and cranny of it, as we try to do, with our eyes and feet rather than with lenses and computer keyboards, there would be hectares and hectares of unspoilt land to conserve, protect, make usable in an environmentally friendly manner and, at the very least, to grow touristically without ruining them.
Today we come across the quiet of Msambweni, a town that is "diffused" as we would say today, between the sugar cane plantations of Ramisi and the mangroves of Funzi Island, a few kilometres south of the famous tourist resort of Diani Beach.
Popular because in Msambweni there is no centre, no small square, no classic meeting place. There is no fishing village on the beach, and not even a thousand-year-old tree contracted by the boda boda where the locals gather. Everything is scattered: the large, modern hospital, almost always half-empty, the market scattered between the motorway and two crossroads to be searched for patiently, the offices and essential services unmarked by obvious signs and everything else as if wrapped in a bubble of coconut water and chloroform.
The roads to the two beaches, where you might encounter some local or foreign tourists, are unpaved. One of them is called "Sawa sawa" and as you look out you understand how the translation "Everything's fine" is very apt: it is a place suspended in time where people live off subsistence fishing, practised mainly with handcrafted pirogues and little else. Fruit is not sold at the market, because mangoes and bananas are picked directly from the generous plants and eaten, and the only resource that needs to be cultivated, as always, is maize.
Along Sawa Sawa Beach there are cottages and structures kissed by the high tide that almost enters the veranda. There is a boutique hotel run by a couple from northern Europe who used to work for the United Nations in Nairobi and made a totally opposite choice of life, private homes for alternative Indians and Kenyans who prefer peace and simplicity to "nightlife", and also a few Italians who have always loved an Africa very different from the perfect holiday and accept its paradoxes, its difficulties and the impossibility of complete integration with its peoples, while embracing its habits, simple life and philosophy.
There are also a few legacies of a past when someone tried to make Msambweni a holiday resort like any other: a restaurant that promises pizza but does not make it, an abandoned mini-resort and one that is still alive but feverish, and a few abandoned buildings.
Alongside this parade of recent geological eras facing the ocean, the private home of an eccentric Scandinavian stands out, showing that it is no coincidence that Alvar Aalto is from the area.
There is nothing else, in front of the coral reef and small mangrove-covered coves.
To find the other Robinson Crusoe beach, you have to go a few kilometres further and here you come to the great paradox with which we began this story: the unsustainability of the sustainable.
The beach called Furaha (happiness) is a fabulous example of what the Swahili coastline might have looked like in the early 20th century. Impenetrable forests close to the shoreline, rocks and bark competing for a bit of sunshine, reflected in the blue of the ocean that resounds with pure, healing energy. Here some far-sighted hospitality artists have invested in creating those places of peace and meditation, the so-called "retreats", for those who can afford them. There is a Belgian, a German and, as in the classic jokes, there was also an Italian who, perhaps sensing the future unsustainability, left early.
No one dares to build hotels, residences or villas, but every free space on the beach of happiness is occupied by boundary walls which, to see them, fill with sadness the spaces that the heart had kept for its yearnings for freedom. When, between one coral and concrete prison and another, you see an old house in the foliage with a clear "old British colonial" flavour, you think about what the price of sustainability should be and who should bear it. Because the burden of a rotten and compromised civilisation such as ours, we know very well on whom it falls.
We stroll along Msambweni beach, enjoying the wonder that excludes the walls and our feet tasting grains of happiness, before jumping into the sea and rinsing away the bad omens in the crystal clear water.
There is still so much beauty in Kenya and a lifetime will not be enough to tell the story.
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