26-08-2021 by Freddie del Curatolo
It's like a spectacular theatre production: behind the scenes of a memorable set design, capable of attracting the eye and bewitching the heart with enveloping lights and colours, supernatural-looking human and animal choreographies, there is the great hidden work of the workers, the labourers.
There are the gears that make each structure move and change the landscape, hands and ropes that open the curtain on new stories, materials for each scene and construction.
This is what happens in the tourist resorts of Kenya, where the splendour of the postcard is matched by the real, raw, penetrating charm of its backdrop.
Behind the marvellous Diani Beach, immersed in the peace of the endless white beach protected by the thick (less and less, sic!) equatorial vegetation, lies the town of Ukunda.
Lively, teeming, perhaps messy but never hectic, because it is still a reality of southern Kenya. Ukunda winds its way along the main artery, the highway leading to the Tanzanian border. Almost all the commercial activities spill out onto the road, from supermarkets to hardware shops, from petrol pumps to pharmacies and electronics shops.
But the eye, as is often the case in Africa, is caught by the multicoloured market. The bright colours of the fruit and vegetables coming from the fertile valleys of Kwale and the foothills of the Shimba Hills mingle with the tools of local artisans and with Chinese plastic furnishings. The bales of more or less wearable rags of the "mitumba" are piled up unevenly but harmoniously on the wooden stalls which, seen from close up, have their differences: some specialise in underwear, others in men's clothes, others sell only skirts or trousers.
It's all a hubbub of patrons mixed with slogans shouted by the vendors, the scent of sun-ripened mangoes and the intense smell of smoked fish.
In Ukunda we eat.
Even in these times of crisis, compared to many other towns we have visited on the Kenyan coast, the street food, concentrated in one of the few streets leading off towards the less noble neighbourhoods, offers indiscriminately grilled chicken and fried meaty fish, chips sizzling in deep frying pans full of oil and cassava boiled and sautéed on charcoal. Small shacks clinging to a hard-to-sustain dignity promise fresh pineapple and tamarind juices, elderly Islamic women prepare bonnets of coconut beans and stack chapatis.
The huge open-air canteen of labourers on the fringes of the tourist film set is an equally magical and interactive spectacle, you just have to want to participate and be observant.
One encounters extras whose life stories one can imagine bordering on the human pitfall or the highest lyricism of the heart. The village madmen in guerrilla outfits or with imaginary machine guns built with incredible daring and the art of recycling, the elderly who pass with impassive phlegm in the midst of a society that changes at the speed of off-road vehicles overtaking smoking articulated lorries and wagging tuktuks loaded with everything from an entire school group to the entire furnishings of a house.
It never ends, Ukunda, it is kilometres in parallel with the white beach of the most famous and coveted show for the paying public. After the market, there are mechanics, coral blocks, blacksmiths with their blowtorches, hairdressers with women sitting for hours redoing their hair and so many other visions that when it is all over, along with the natural sense of liberation of finding the peace of African nature by the side of the road, so much humanity remains in your eyes that you think that, for better or for worse, if you want it, if you have hands and heart to extend to others or even just a smile and a plate of wheat to share, you will never be alone.
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by Freddie del Curatolo
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