Serene village that tourists throng to learn Digo culture

Digo traditional dancer, Mwanakombo Ali [right] entertains a guest, Hanif Ahmed Poona at Mwakamba Village, Diani in Kwale County on December 3, 2023. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Ms Riadha Bakari, a former sail excursion boat skipper in Mwakamba, Kwale County has, for years, witnessed the ups and downs of tourism in the area.

While some products have ended disastrously for investors, many have blossomed into profitable ventures.

The serene village, nestled on the third row from the white sandy beaches of the idyllic Diani Beach, is quickly becoming the most visited rural area by foreigners on the Coast. It is also the village where an eco-tourism pilot project is taking shape. Baraki says the idea was first introduced in the area by veteran hotelier James Wilson in the 1980s. In the village, the Digo tribe showcases their lifestyle with living abodes complete with open shower bathrooms and toilets, traditional cuisine, traditional dance, and village weddings.

But that is not all. The visitors also visit the revered Kaya shrines, adding to exciting tour packages. The Standard Group PLC has partnered with the organisers to provide media coverage for the venture.

Village tourism is part of the package for the safari circuit with most hotels like Jacaranda Indian Ocean Beach Resort, Almanara Resort, Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort& Spa, Leopard Beach Resort and Residence, Diani Reef Beach Resort & Spa, Baobab Beach Hotel supporting it.

“This could not have come at a better time. You are all aware of the tough times we are all in. An extra coin from this venture is a big relief. It is a good thing that locals are benefiting,” Riadha says.

Village visits are part of cultural tourism, which is the movements of persons for essentially cultural motivations such as study tours, performing arts and cultural tours, and travel to festivals.

Tourism players at the Coast say there was a need for a plan to attract cultural tourism because it benefits not only hoteliers but also the villagers, and defines Kenya as a cultural and artistic destination.

They say tourists look for an authentic experience and communities have special attributes, including telling their stories that are unique from others in other destinations.

Mr Hanif Poona, Chief Executive Officer of Mama Layla Solar Lights Limited, said that cultural tourists offer exciting and immersive experiences in the rich cultural tapestry of the people.

“The visits also aid in the preservation of cultural heritage, creation of jobs, and empowering villages for sustainable community development,’’ he said.

Hanif, a veteran tour operator with more than five decades in the country said that for the particular village tour ventures where organised visits are done involving select groups of tourists and students, they have teamed up with Mombasa-based environmental CBO, Bigship, and the Ecotourism Kenya.

He said that several star4-rated hotels in the South Coast have shown a willingness to have their in-house guests sensitised on the village visits.

“We have done sensitisation and mobilisation. What remains is for us to roll out the programme, which will ensure that proceeds generated from the village cultural tours directly contribute to enhancing the quality of life in the villages,’’ he said.

Hanif said skilled beach operators, found in plenty, will act as tour guides.

“This is going to provide them with opportunities to enhance their skills through practical interaction with visitors, promoting skill development within the community and contributing to sustainable economic growth,’’ he added.

Mwakamba village receives tourists from Coast Hotels as part of Culture Tourism to support Beach operators and Local communities. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Hanif said that since locals in the area are peasant farmers, they will be helped to grow vegetables and plant fruit trees to sell to hotels after successful harvests.

“Once we roll out this project, here we shall be heading to the greater North Coast areas of Watamu and Malindi, respectively,’’ he said.

For Samson Beja, a lead singer with a village dance troupe, once the initiative takes off they will be busy and earn from their entertainment exploits.

Mwakamba village elder Juma Mwachange commended implementers of the programme, saying that it was a well-thought-out idea where the community interests come first.

“While our people work in hotels that dot the Diani Beach, we still feel this kind of engagement will give us more freedom to excel while interacting with visitors from all over the world who come to holiday in our beautiful Diani beach,” Mwachange says.

For Abdul Salim alias Senior, a tour guide with 15 years of working experience, the new opportunity presents a perfect chance to excel in life.

“We are pleading with the Kwale County Government, Tourism Fund (TF) and Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) to help train the local tour guides how to handle international guests by equipping them with knowledge transfer on foreign languages and PR,’’ he says.

Ms Susan Akinyi Ketterer, Head of Programmes at BigShip CBO, noted that under their Urban Resilience pillar programme, they will ensure that the pilot venture promotes eco-tourism for the benefit of host communities.

“Our Department of Urban Livelihood and Resilience aims at empowering local communities through social, economic, and educational. We have partnered with Mama Layla to try and uplift the economic status of beach operators and the general village communities through the Beach Operators Cultural village visits,’’ she says.

Linus Murimi, the General Manager of Bora Bora Wildlife Sanctuary in Diani says that community empowerment is crucial to the full realisation of sustainable tourism as it seeks to benefit all and sundry.