Wild life

Please take your holiday in Kenya this year

21 June 2014

9:00 AM

21 June 2014

9:00 AM

 Rift Valley

Many of my British tribe fled Kenya around independence in 1963 because they believed there was no future. Gerald Hanley, an Irish novelist who knew the country, forecast ‘a huge slum on the edge of the West, Africans in torn trousers leaning against tin shacks, the whites of their eyes gone yellow, hands miserably in their pockets…’

For sure, poverty here is an awful, destabilising reality. But Kenya’s past 51 years is a story of hard work and enterprise in which there has been real social mobility and countless stories of rags to riches. In everything from finance to farming, Kenyans are Africa’s most successful capitalists. Still, for a middle-class person to come good in 1963, all you needed to do was buy a Nairobi house for a few quid from one of those fleeing colonials and do nothing else except drink a bottle of gin a day, and you’d have made a lot of money.

People have been predicting my home’s imminent demise for 51 years. In 2000 Blaine Harden, a top American correspondent once based here, wrote of the ‘decline of nearly everything in Kenya’, which previously had been ‘a celebrated exception to the rule of misrule in sub-Saharan Africa’. Meanwhile a dynamic, complex economy and society has been building up.

In 25 years I have seen half a dozen generations of foreign correspondents and diplomats come and go. Many arrive full of beans and hope, in chinos. They buy bark-cloth wall hangings, sample maize meal, say liberal things. Some stay for the rest of their lives because they’ve found their place. Others — four years later they’re like Kurtz up the river. The roads, the cops, the stuff they see daily just gets to them. They write about the ‘formerly stable Kenya’. As they jog for the departure gate to new international postings, their parting shots are full of doom.

Then up turns the new replacement in his Banana Republics, holding his inflatable exercise ball. ‘This country is kaput,’ says one diplomat every single time I see him at cocktail parties. ‘How long have we got?’ I probe while lunging for the canapés. Anecdotes follow about the latest outrages as I recharge my glass of merlot. The latest thing is terrorism. Before that it was ethnic violence, crime, corruption. This just goes on and on, year after year. My advice is always: ‘What you must do is buy a house. Do you like gin…?’

It’s not that I’m against foreign hacks or diplomats. I don’t, as many do, vilify them for dishing out the bad news. We need to hear the bad news. And I think it’s wonderful they can all be here puncturing our dreams of a rising Africa, because of course they would not be doing this in Mogadishu or Juba. They live in Nairobi and fly out to those places, whereas here foreign investment quadrupled in a single year last year and the international families are piling in. Even life in supposedly stable countries such as Tanzania — or South Africa — cannot compare with Kenya in what they offer.

Maybe I am a frog in a saucepan of heating water, but I am not without foresight. I thought a lot about life after being ambushed by a bandit who filled my car with bullets last year. I’ve logged all the newspaper reports of terrorism attacks since the end of the Westgate shopping mall massacre in September. My count of reported incidents gives a total of 60 innocents killed in nearly 30 events, some very close to home. I am concerned daily for my family. The roads drive me crazy. And so does bureaucracy and corruption. The poverty I see disturbs me to the core.

But those of us who have made Kenya our home do not regard it as a ‘formerly stable ally of the West’. We hope to be resilient whatever happens. My mother slept with a revolver under her pillow in the 1950s but my parents never once considered abandoning our home. We see a great future here. We enjoy Kenya: the people, the still wide open spaces, the best safaris, the Tusker beer, the days of toil and nights of joy. Whatever they say about Kenya, Britain remains a great friend — the biggest investor, with the biggest tax-paying companies, the largest expatriate community, the closest connections of history and culture. The British are still the largest group of visitors to Kenya because they see the wonder and magic of the place. I’m concerned that all these good things happening here are being ignored. This in the end will hurt us all. We are not going to be brought down by a few foreign Muslim lunatics out to disrupt life. Please take your holiday in Kenya this year. In case any readers of The Spectator are passing our way this summer, you are very welcome for a beer.

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  • Picquet

    Don’t bother. Come on down to Botswana; no mujahiddeen here.

    • Hegelguy

      Are they preserving the wild life in Botswana? What is the crime rate like?

      • Picquet

        Yes. Low.

  • anitadump

    See you soon! Kenya is a great country with great people (apart from some politicians)! Keep the Tuskers on ice!

  • Hegelguy

    Nice article which manages to be cheerful about a poor country without being patronising or callous or boastful or pompous. Quite a feat !
    I am an Asian from Uganda who now lives in Vancouver and I have to confess to at times unbearable nostalgia for Africa. Canada has no lack of wide open spaces but somehow the seems insipid by comparison. Having seen a lot of countries since I was thrown out of Uganda by Al-hajji President Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC DSO MC, Conqueror of the British Empire and Last King of Scotland,

  • xDemosthenesx

    I’m sorry Aiden but you have not given a single reason why people from the UK should risk their lives and the lives of their families to go to a country that is dangerous to the extreme – and not just because of the terrorists.

    You understandably fear for your and the countries livelihood but encouraging people into danger is morally suspect.

    Kenya has had ample time, money, support and opportunity to sort itself out. They know full well how important the tourist trade is to them and yet they have done little or nothing to secure it. The corruption is so deep rooted that it is beyond repair. They allow or even encourage the slaughter of the animals that feed the sector.

    Travel is dangerous, living there is dangerous. The road fatalities alone are terrifying, never-mind the grenade attacks, hotel raids etc…

    Oh, and I am no travelling hack or four year wonder. I lived in Nairobi for two decades in Lavington watching the slums grow ever closer, watching as neighbours were attacked and murdered in front of their families.

    We were attacked ourselves, of course, and only luck kept us out of being one of those statistics.

    The truth is as you suspect – you are a frog being boiled, but like many of the folk who should have packed up you prefer to bury your head in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to you, that somehow you can tough it out to the bright future.

    Well that’s fine, but don’t try and drag people form the UK in who don’t know the dangers and risk as well as you do. If you wan’t people to come back, then spend your energy sorting the country out, root and branch, if it can be done.

    • Hegelguy

      Tell us more about the experiences of your family and yourself. I am very interested in these accounts of what happened during the old empire and after. I know all about the racism and the occasional atrocity during the empire and I am an Indian; yet even I am nostalgic for those times !
      When were you attacked? Was that during Mau Mau?

    • selongs

      Dangerous to the extreme? Kindly elaborate, since you seem to have the experience(s) to back up this statement (e.g. you were attacked yourselves “of course”). If you are also unable to provide this evidence (an accusation you have levelled at Aiden), use facts the next time you so soundly condemn a country. The UK has a far more extensive experience from bomb attacks, thanks to the IRA than Kenya does…so I don’t see why or how people from the UK don’t know/understand the “dangers or risks” as you put it.

    • Terry Field

      It is not ‘dangerous in the extreme’, you health and safetyised plonker – life has dangers that you have no choice but accept – unless you are a big girl’s blouse.
      What about Brixton, Bradford, Scotland!!!!!

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    I suppose I’m lucky to have stayed in the country before all this Islamic terror.

    Peter Beard, however, was absolutely right. Too many people in East Africa. Needs a culling.

  • Leonidas

    Spot on Aidan. I live in Nairobi, have just been back to to England and everyone looked for the bullet holes as if I spent daily life dodging them. I worked in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and again, journos focus on the sh** and not the fact that life goes on and that life could be quite good. Yes life is not perfect. I can list people I know who have died of malaria, car accidents, buffaloes, crime but none of them would have chosen to be anywhere else but here. Forget the Foreign Office advisories, choose your travel agent well and, despite everything, see what a great place it is

  • Gwangi

    Sadly the local elephant population is being decimated by poaching, done by Africans and paid for by the Chinese. I recently came across this story. So very sad.


    Too many people in Kenya too – 4 times the number of 50 years ago. That is putting huge pressures on wildlife AND people, and bringing tribal loyalties to the fore. My neighbours still plan to revisit Kenya though. But do wish the authorities there would clamp down on Muslim extremists crossing the border.

  • cromwell

    “Please take your holiday in Kenya this year” No never too many Muslims means death by terrorism too likely.

  • Emma Doone O Beirne

    Wonderful article, an absolute gem and made me smile! Yes we like gin and we’ll be up in Kenya in September, do come and visit us down at Galu Aidan – we live in Zim now, and in my opinion I would rather put up with Africa’s way of life than deal with any other. With young army soldiers being hacked to death in broad daylight in the UK, uprisings elsewhere, I rather fear that anywhere is not safe so at least be somewhere beautiful which gladdens the soul.
    Thanks for your articles which we thoroughly enjoy.

  • Mike

    I concur with others as I did visit Nairobi many years ago on business but was left underwhelmed by the trip.

    Looking around the world today there’s too many countries where Islamic terrorism exists not to mention other criminal activities and quite honestly I wouldn’t want to risk going there. The African continent with perhaps the exception of S. Africa is a no go area, parts of Asia where Islam rules is now a no go area, and the middle East except for Israel is most certainly a no go area. South American countries are a possible with perhaps the exception of Columbia but the world in many respects is a far more dangerous place for travelers than 100 years ago.

    When these no go areas have grown up and become civilized I might consider going there but its very unlikely in my lifetime.

  • Terry Field

    It is a fantastic country and the people are kind, open, delightful and kind.
    It is a place that is really hard to leave.

  • Jen

    Excellent no nonsense article. Well done that man. I will take the bits of bad and have all the good that Kenya has to offer. Nowhere else like it on earth.

  • Aris

    I grew up in Kenya, so understand everything everybody is saying both negative and positive living there. The fact is, as it stands today and from a tourists point of view, that have family, there are plenty of safer, cheaper and less stress holiday options out there nowadays. Tourists with families simply won’t take the risk anymore, and will sacrifice the scenery and wildlife Kenya has to offer, for a stress free holiday. The Kenyan government have turned their back on the tourism sector and it shows.