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StreetWise: Malindi: Kenya’s ‘Little Italy’

Malindi, Kenya’s ‘Little Italy’
By Edwin Kaguri

Malindi is a small town located in coastal Kenya. It acquired the name ‘Little Italy’ because of the growing Italian population in the area, which is more than 3,000 at present. It is also estimated that Italians own more than 2,500 properties there.

Three decades ago, the scene was not the same. The first batch of Italian tourists flew into the scenic coastal town in 1978 to enjoy the beautiful white sand beaches. The number of flights has been increasing ever since. Smooth cultural integration between the locals and tourists has been a major factor facilitating the transaction. Locals in Malindi have grown fond of the Italians to an extent that their relationship crosses commercial boundaries. You’ll definitely be forgiven for mistaking that you’re in Rome when in Malindi. The billboards are filled with Italian advertisements. Interestingly, locals from all walks of life in the quiet town are eloquent in the language as well.

The change brought about as a result has seen the youth from Malindi acquiring well-paying jobs. Many of them have succeeded in securing jobs as tour guides. As a result, more residents of Malindi are learning Italian. This is a prerequisite since fluency in the language guarantees employment in one of the many tour companies there. Tom Jefwa, a tour guide, said, “Speaking Italian is the only way to make money here.” Just like the other youths who are fluent in the language, he learnt it by following Italian tourists around and by practicing it with his peers at home.

Boda bodatraders have also caught up with the wave. Not wanting to be left behind, a large number of them have gone to school to take courses in the language. Taxi drivers and other key players in the transport industry have also been forced to add Italian to their resume lest they lose these valuable customers. In the hotels, which are dominated by the Italians, operators must learn the language in order to effectively communicate with their customers. Menus in many of the town’s restaurants have more Italian than local delicacies. Intermarriage between the Italians and Kenyans have also created a tighter social bond.

The existing love between these two communities has crossed monetary borders. There are numerous programmes that are owned by the community and are benefitting many of its people.

The San Matteo Foundation, which is Italian owned, has been another key player in the heart of ‘Little Italy’. In June 2013, the organization donated KES 280 Million (USD 3.2 Million) to the Malindi District Hospital. The funds were used in building three new units meant for critical patients and general face-lifting of the healthcare facility.

Mida Creek and Hell’s Kitchen are amongst the top attraction sites in Malindi. These establishments receive thousands of tourists every year. The proceeds collected are usually used to fund various programs. The ongoing Mida Creek project has offered scholarships to over 450 needy students.

However, it would be erroneous to assume that it’s only the Italian community that should be thanked for the efforts. Tourists who visit the area, and thus contribute to the projects, come from diverse local and international backgrounds.

Apart from the exceedingly large Italian population in Malindi, the town is a magnet that attracts tourists from near and far. Tourists from Switzerland, Germany, France and Portugal fly in throughout the year.

The white sand beaches stretch for a distance of approximately 96 miles, making it quite scenic and alluring. Little wonder as to why Vasco Da Gama stopped in Malindi back in 1497 during his famous voyages. Not only did he stop there, but he also built a pillar which still exists to date although it has been reconstructed and modified several times.

Numerous high profile visitors make the guest list of the various luxurious resorts. The splendid Italian architecture blends elegantly with the African feeling providing a very relaxing ambience. Armando Tanzini is a renowned Italian architect who has designed plenty of buildings in the area and can, therefore, be credited for giving Malindi the Roman aesthetic appeal.

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