Blot on the landscape
Aidan Hartley Malindi Iwatched a nest of baby turtles hatch on the beach in front of my mother's house recently. What a hellish start to a life, I thought. You burrow up through sand and plastic rubbish discarded by tourists. On the race towards the sea everybody wants to eat you: ghost crabs, herons, crows and monitor lizards. If you make it to the waves, the predatory fish are waiting to gulp you down, nets to snare you, pollution to poison you. With enemies like these, who needs Naomi Campbell?
The supermodel says that she and her exboyfriend Flavio Briatore, boss of a Formula One team, are going to build a casino and 40 luxury flats on the beach, two plots away from our house. I hear it's going to be called the Billionaires' Resort.
The beach is among the most important turtle hatcheries for several rare species on Africa's eastern coast. It is also within Kenya's second most popular national park. Kenyans too poor to enter expensive reserves like the Maasai Mara to see their own wildlife can afford to visit Malindi and play on the white sandy beach. Out on the coral reefs they can marvel at the iridescent fishes.
The ornithologist Sir Peter Scott once stayed in a house that stood on the very spot where they want to build this casino. Scott later wrote to my parents, saying how thrilled he was by the birds and marine life he saw. George Adamson's brother Terence once lived here — when I was a boy he taught me how to divine for water — and Joy and George used to bring their lions here for walks.
A beachfront casino complex — or, I should say, a Billionaires' Resort — inevitably means lots of lights. Lights confuse laying turtles and hatching babies. Years ago the beach north of us, outside the park, used to be another important nesting area. Then a string of hotels went up, with sea walls, lights, discos and sunloungers. Raw sewage leaked into the sea and the sand filled up with beach hawkers and prostitutes. The turtles have vanished from that beach, which is now a dead marine zone.
When I first heard about the casino I visited our local council offices and tried to track documents for Naomi and Briatore's plot. I wanted to know more about their plans, which should be open to the public. I am sure Naomi wants to follow the law, but the men I spoke to would not help me, even though documents of this kind should be in the public domain. One official I saw claimed the files did not exist.
The casino is supposedly going to cost £50 million and provide lots of jobs. Local people need to see what Naomi and her chums are really up to, given the despoliation of Kenya's coastline by hoteliers. In the past, whenever residents have complained, developers respond by saying their hotels bring wealth and jobs for poor Kenyans. Anybody who complains is branded 'anti-jobs' or anti-investment'.
Everybody wants Kenya to dig itself out of poverty, but turtles do not have to be sacrificed along the way. Also, tourism at the coast rarely benefits locals. Usually, when these hotels are completed, they provide lots of menial jobs for waiters, laundry girls and garden boys — but little else. Our coastal districts remain among the poorest in Kenya. Despite promises of huge investments that will attract rich visitors, hotels almost always turn out to be vulgar monstrosities busing in cheap package grockles. A fortnight in one of these places will cost you £350 — flights, bed, buffet and alcohol poisoning thrown in.
Malindi is a town of about 30,000 people — most of them poor, half of them Muslim. I have no idea how a casino is going to make money when we already have one. I occasionally have a flutter on the tables and what strikes me is how the Italian plebs pretending to be James Bond in Casino Royale are all placing bets with 30 pence chips.
Kenya has sold itself cheap. It used to be one of the world's most beautiful countries but mass tourism has ruined the coast. Even worse, hotels are frequently a front for money laundering. Or they attract the very worst sort of visitors. Malindi and the coast are becoming a magnet for drugs, criminals on the run, sex tourists and paedophiles. It's a far cry from Sir Peter Scott gazing at fish eagles.