By Joe Kiarie
Slowly but surely, paradise is changing. On any given afternoon in the tourist season, a hotel owner at the coast only used to worry about power cuts, malfunctioning air-conditioners, ‘the German Problem’ (towels used to book pool chairs) or any of the other small headaches of the hospitality business.
Now, in the wake of terror advisories and stiff competition, making the stay pleasant ranks well below getting visitors in the door.
Dress codes are no longer enforced as more Eastern Europeans check in. More and more cash is forked out for live bands and animators in attempts to outdo the next establishment.
And when it comes to a guest’s new friends, ushered into the room late in the night, it is often best not to ask too many questions.
Walk through Diani or Ukunda townships in the late afternoon, however, and you will see reasons to ask a few questions. A recent visit by The Standard on Saturday brought us face to face with the dark secret of Kenya’s tropical paradise.
From around 4pm on any given day, you can see dozens of scantily dressed girls, some in their teens, loitering around shopping centres or in local bars as they prey, or wait to be preyed upon, by tourists.
On the street, their hungry eyes lock on any posh ‘fuel-guzzlers’ driving by, hoping to be picked up and whisked off to lavish beach homes, villas or hotels.
Almost a third of all tourists coming into Kenya have sex with a local during their stay, a recent study found. People who would normally not enter a brothel in their home country hunt for sex openly when abroad.
This has bred a culture of sexual servitude that affects not just the hundreds of thousands of sex workers in the country, but also tens of thousands of school-age children.
Areas such as Ukunda and Diani on the south coast, and Mtwapa, Kikambala and Malindi on the north coast, have become notorious for sex tourism.
On a recent Friday night in one of Diani’s beachfront resorts, we found half-naked and drunk girls, some of them teens, engaged in lively dancing contests deep into the night.
Aware of how young they look, they advertise their availability through their exposed clothing, heavy smoking and drinking. This, we are told, is the norm here since many sex tourists prefer ‘loose’ or ‘wild’ girls who are likely to do what they want.
Members of the audience could be seen selecting some of the girls from the stage and ushering them to pubs and rooms in the dimly-lit backyard.
The sex tourists, who include Kenyans from upcountry, business people, transport workers and military personnel, often get away with their crimes. If caught, many can expect to bribe their way out of trouble.
As we later learned, there were adult guardians and parents accompanying some of the underage girls to the dance contests. Their job is to act as informal pimps, striking deals with clients who pick their daughters. Our guide spotted one girl who is a Class Six pupil in a local primary school.
Attempts to confront her mother were met with a vociferous admonishment.
"Mwataka nimtoe hapa, mtanipea mimi nini nile? (What will you offer me if I take her out of here?)," the woman exclaimed before walking off into the dark.
The dancing contests, we are told, are one of the events devised to camouflage and advertise underage sex tourism. The local District Officer recently stormed this very resort to pull a half-naked schoolgirl from the stage.
The destructive trade has distorted the social mores of the coastal region beyond recognition.
Mwaroni village in Diani, from which some of these girls come, is one of the many struggling to end the sex trade. Village elder Juma Bavu says he is horrified at how quickly the previously unthinkable vice has engulfed the community.
"When we were young, this was totally unheard of," he says. "I worked in almost every resort in this region, but I never let any tourist corrupt me.
This is no longer the case with our children."
Chairman Swaleh Mwero says banning traditional dances for tourists at night has only moved the trade out of the villages into area discotheques.
"We are shocked by what is happening. This is an issue that cannot be ignored anymore," he says.
Mwero adds the huge amounts of money generated by this trade have made it impossible to suppress.
The evidence is clear in many villages, he says, pointing to vehicles and property he claims ‘sponsors’ acquired for the families of abused minors.
He says underage girls have been vanishing from the villages and travelling abroad with tourists, disguised as family friends.
He says elders are threatened when they attempt to keep minors away from tourists. "Many children drop out of school to court tourists," he laments. "Others do it while still in school. Unfortunately, most parents support this vice."
The sexual exploitation of children is not limited to coastal areas or to tourists, however. It can be found in communities across Kenya. Most of the two to three thousand full-time prostitutes in the region have migrated to the coast from other parts of the country, where they were "inaugurated into sex work".
Part of the problem is that older youths who have courted white tourists are seen as role models. There is even a popular local saying that behind every successful family there is a ‘mzungu’ (white person). This creates social pressure on parents
with young children to push them into this line of work.
George Njaramba, a member of a Diani advisory committee on child rights, says it all comes down to economic incentives.
"Here, many people who focus on education end up struggling to make ends meet. Some of those who hook up with tourists, however, often end up relatively rich. They may even offer to pay school fees for age-mates still in school."
Njaramba claims local authorities are aware of the problem but choose not to act.
"Government officials here know what is happening, but I believe they turn a blind eye either because they have been bribed or do not want bad publicity on Kenyan tourism," he says.
The Government first publicly addressed the problem in 2003, at a child protection workshop.
Several measures to deal with it were implemented. However, the growth of the tourism sector, even as other economic activities in the coast region remain depressed, has drawn even more children into the trade.
Hard to come by
Ibrahim Makanzu, the chief for Diani location, says concrete evidence is hard to come by. He does, however, concede the social effects of sex tourism are evident: While the use of antiretroviral drugs has reduced Aids-related deaths, the HIV prevalence rate has shot up in recent years. High school dropout rates in the region are also unusually high.
Divisional Officer Halima Duri adds that the large number of young girls with property but no visible means of income suggests sex in being traded, but adds there is little social pressure to deal with the problem.
"Not even a single case has ever been reported to me," she says. "It is true some young girls are enjoying life with luxury cars and houses, but it is hard to intervene in a case where there is no complaint."
Provincial Administration officials limit themselves to reducing opportunities for the sex trade to happen. The DO claims that Government pressure has reduced child prostitution.
"In the past, tourists would openly enter hotels with children," she says. "Now, some use private cottages and massage parlours, while others visit the minors in their rural homes. This makes it difficult to catch them." Unlike hotels and resorts, which are public places, the private cottages are far harder to monitor.
When the scale of the problem first emerged in 2006, industry players were outraged.
Then Tourism Minister Morris Dzoro and hotel association chief Lucy Karume raided one hotel where three schoolgirls aged between eight and 14 were abused.
It emerged their mothers had helped to hide the crime from the hotel by accompanying the children to meet with two elderly tourists. The two foreigners, it also turned out, were notorious child molesters who had been thrown out of another hotel in the area. Afraid of the negative publicity, hotel owners often turn paedophiles away rather than turn them in.
This merely moves the problem from one location to another. With more dangerous sex predators coming to Kenya, it is an approach doomed to failure.
Hotel manager Mohammed Hersi, also an official of the hoteliers’ association, has proposed having the Immigration Department review aliens permits and make it difficult "for retirees and social misfits to come into the country".
The challenge is that even convicted sex offenders are allowed to travel from their home countries to Kenya. Sex offenders convicted of abusing children abroad often face relatively short travel bans. The United Kingdom, which boasts the toughest travel restrictions, prevents travel for only between six months and five years.
Easily corrupted Immigration officials at Kenya border points are also known to allow in prohibited and undesirable immigrants. Sex tourists are also making use of the Internet to make their crimes easier.
Calling themselves ‘sex mongers’, these groups of men congregate in forums where they share information about where to find prostitutes, how much to pay, where to do the deed and what to do if caught.
Step-by-step instructions are also offered on how to persuade victims to allow the monger to perform various acts and take photographs. Due to criminal law restrictions, The Standard on Saturday did not search these forums for any images that may prove underage prostitutes are being abused in Kenya.
However, recent arrests in the United States and Europe of member of child sex and child pornography rings with connections to Kenya prove the abuse is happening. This would not be possible if the sex trade had not become a glorified way of life and a key source of livelihood for some locals.
In some localities, those who crusade against child prostitution have to endure constant threats to their lives. The officer in charge at the Diani Tourist Police Unit base is quick to deny complacency or complicity by law enforcement on child sex tourism.
"We always hear of those cases, but they are never reported here," he says, referring us to the officer commanding the local police division. "It is very guarded and there is never any evidence."
This is a familiar line of argument from the unit, which serves mostly to protect tourists from local crime.
The brochures it issues to foreign visitors, for example, do not warn against the illegal use of prostitutes, whether underage or not. Instead, they offer ‘personal safety tips’ for those who intend to "invite a friend" to their hotel room. Turning a blind eye to the sex work, however, means they fail to see the abuse of children going on under their noses.