Heaven on earth: Italians’ love affair with Malindi

Elisabetta Bettoni

Ms Maureen Awuor, the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers Kilifi branch chairperson, Italian tourist Elisabetta Bettoni and Ms Catherine Mwikali, the founder of the Progressive Welfare of Malindi, chat at the Ocean Beach Resort and Spa in Malindi.

Photo credit: Maureen Ongala | Nation Media Group

The music booming from giant speakers drowns out all other sounds, driving revellers on the dance floor into frenzied moves that take a robotic rhythm under the dazzling disco lights.

Welcome to Fermento, the self-styled hottest nightclub in Malindi town, and successor to the legendary Stardust.

The patrons gyrating to various tunes on the dance floor and those cuddling in dimly lit enclaves corners are a microcosm of arguably the most cosmopolitan town in Kenya.

The crowd is largely Kenyan – drawn from all parts of the country – with a remarkable sprinkling of Europeans, mostly Italians, who have made Malindi their home and no longer consider themselves tourists.

Elderly white men in khaki shorts and sunglasses can be seen canoodling with lithe Kenyan women in micro-minis and halter tops that leave little to the imagination.

Make no mistakes, though. These are not all fleeting one-evening affairs. Some have established serious relations and are raising families in the cottages that line the beachfront. Of course there are many casual acquaintances who are just out to have some fun. That’s vintage Malindi, which has grown into a magnet for tycoons from around the world.

There is more to Malindi than the fabled sun, sand, sea and sex.

From the mid-1960s, Malindi has inexorably teemed with German tourists and residents. So much that street signs, advertising billboards and storefront adverts have traditionally been in German, in addition to English and Swahili.

The European language was once mandatory for waiters and other hotel staff. The beach boys, curio traders, hawkers and ladies of the night too had to learn the language to stay afloat.

Then came the Italian invasion.

Today, Malindi, which has sadly been going through a rough economic patch accentuated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, is a Little Italy.

However, one does not see as many Italians on the streets, in restaurants and nightclubs as before. However, they have a solid presence in the confines of the exclusive resorts, beach hotels and private cottages that dot this coastal town.

Their influence on local culture, lifestyles, economy and even politics cannot be gainsaid.

For years, their love for this coastal town famed for its pristine beaches and glorious sunsets has seen many settle here. They are often joined by many other high-spenders who fly in private jets and chartered aircraft.

Quite a number of the leading hotels and villas in Malindi are owned by Italians. Their investments have over the years reinforced local businesses and handed a much-needed economic lifeline to the surrounding villages.

But before the Italians were the Chinese, British, Germans, Arabs and later Portuguese explorers. The latter tagged along Christianity to these shores.

In fact, so integrated are Italians into the local culture and politics that in this year’s Kilifi governor race is Mr Franco Esposito, a Kenyan of Italian descent who is vying as an independent candidate.

Popularly known as Kasoso wa Baya, he vied for the Magarini parliamentary seat in 1997, and came close to winning.

For the August 9 polls, Mr Esposito is banking on his Italian networks to revive the county’s economy, which is mainly dependent on tourism.

“We have a bigger picture of how to make Kilifi great using our cultural heritage and the many resources available. This county has great potential for growth, and we’re prepared to bring these changes for the benefit of our people,” he said in an interview with the Nation.

But what makes Malindi tick for the Italians?

Airbnb, the online market for private homestays, listed the resort town of Malindi among the top 20 global destinations of the year 2020.

It described Malindi, the only African resort town on the list, as a bustling coastal village endowed with natural beauty and habited by people from the African, Arab and European cultural backgrounds.

“Known for its Swahili architecture, freshly caught seafood, and natural wonders like the Marafa Depression – also known as Hell’s Kitchen — this pristine beach town is much more than a laid-back sunny retreat,” it states.

Ms Elizabetta Bettoni, 82, is an Italian settler and the proprietor of Ocean Beach Resort and Spa.

She says Italians developed a love for Malindi town because of the hospitality of the people and the environment.

Ms Bettoni and her late husband, Renato Marini, moved to Kenya in January 1978 as tourists.

They owned hotels back home in Italy, but the bug had bitten. After going back to Europe, they continued to pine for the sun, the beaches and the laidback lifestyle.

They later sold their properties in Italy, packed their bags and came to start life afresh in Malindi.

According to Bettoni, the Italian trickle started in the 1980s. She is content with Malindi as her home and does not fancy any other place under the sun.

Their investments started when they built a home and started sending back pictures of their new life to friends in Italy. Friends came visiting and many were not in a hurry to go back home. Soon their home was so packed with guests that they had to put up tents in the garden.

After seeing the economic potential of the area, Mr Marini started building villas to let and for sale. They were snapped up like hot cakes.

“Malindi is, indeed, enticing and addictive, like heaven on earth. It’s one big family of friends and relatives here. It is why there are many Italian settlers in Malindi, and they like to bring more of their friends,” Ms Bettoni says.

By the time he died in 2014, aged 78 years, Marini had established his crown jewel, Ocean Beach Resort and Spa, which his widow now runs with the help of General Manager Maureen Awuor.

Another investor in the town is Italian billionaire and former Renault Formula 1 boss Flavio Briatore, who often moves around town in the company of British supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Mr Briatore owns Lion in the Sun Resort and the Billionaires Resort in Malindi, two holiday hideouts that offer exquisite services that only big money can buy.

Famous people from all over the world jet straight into the premises for quality time.

In a 2019 interview, the tycoon said poor roads and lack of hygiene kept away many would-be tourists and investors.

Ms Awuor, who is also chairperson of the Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers, says Italian residents and tourists provide much-needed jobs.

“They have all the time and come to relax, not work. Some build hotels, apartments, and they have bought many apartments in Malindi,” she says.

She added that affordable life and availability of local help in terms of house helps, gardeners, nannies, security guards, handymen and so on had encouraged many Italians to settle.

“You can find about five local employees in one house who have families depending on them,” Ms Awour says.

Some locals have also invested in foreign currency exchange businesses.

“When the Italians come, they give us the Euros, and it is lovely to have foreign currency,” she added.

Ms Awuor noted that the tourism business is slowly shifting to conferences and exhibitions, unlike before when leisure was the main business.

She further explained that the international market had shifted and hotels were no longer relying on tourists from Asia, the United States (US), Germany and the United Kingdom.

She hopes tourism will recover and that the incoming government will do much more to market local attractions in global markets, improve infrastructure and utilities, and expand Malindi Airport so that it can receive big international airlines.

But the contradiction to the county’s tourism wealth is the level of poverty among locals.

And beneath the veneer of leisure and happy-go-lucky scenes lies the untold story of broken hearts that came here hunting for love and pleasure but reaped pain instead.

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