Why it pays to speak broken English, German in Lamu as a guide

Boats docked at the sea front on October 2, 2011 at Ras Gitau, in Manda, Lamu archipelago. AFP PHOTO/SIMON MAINA

For many tour guides on Lamu island, their command of English, Italian, French, German and other foreign languages is marked poorly.

Not even using an American twang helps, the result being one can barely make out what they are trying to say.

But to local and international visitors and the guides themselves, they are pros, broken English or not.

“It works to our advantage. In fact, it sells when speaking broken English or any other foreign language compared to being too fluent in that particular language,” said 70-year-old Ziwa Abdallah. 

“You will miss clients as a beach operator or tour guide if you’re too fluent or you portray yourself as too sharp, my friend.”

Mr Abdallah is one of the oldest guides in the Lamu archipelago and is the chairperson of the Beach Operators and Tour Guide Association.

He has been in the industry for more than 50 years and is not quitting the business anytime soon.

He says it does not matter whether a beach operator or tour guide stepped in class or not.

What matters most is that one needs to be a people person, neat, and have polished persuasive communication skills.

He says a beach operator or tour guide should also be well informed about the geographical location where he operates.

Many times tourists believe in individuals who are conversant with the area they are visiting.

“This alone gives them the assurance that they are safe and can’t get lost in that particular place. You can’t be a beach operator in Lamu and you aren’t even aware of tourist attraction sites found in this archipelago, and the best places for snorkelling, swimming and other entertainments that these visitors like,” Mr Abdallah said.

Mohamed Abubakar, 49, a beach operator who has been in the business for 31 years, says it is also crucial for one to learn the social-cultural settings of tourists as part of the strategies to win their hearts.

Most beach operators, he says, have mastered the accents of tourists based on the country or continent they are from.

“We don’t just approach tourists and start speaking without a plan. You won’t be understood,” Mr Abubakar said. 

“You need to know where or which country and continent these tourists come from so that you can go straight to conversing with them by the use of their accent. 

“Is he or she from Britain, America, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands or Spanish? Just by conversing using their accent, it is easy to communicate with them that way.”

Kahindi Menza, a tour guide, notes that it is also crucial for one to put a smile on their face when approaching tourists.

Mr Menza says perseverance is also an important trait that a beach operator or tour guide needs to have.

“Some tourists are harsh. Sometimes they use abusive language once you approach them, especially if they are new to you. We don’t take any offence and that alone attracts them. They end up being our best friends,” Mr Menza said.

But why do tour guides and beach operators in places like Lamu and the Coast region stay in such an industry?

Omar Ali says he has been a beach operator for 20 years and prefers working on streets and beaches rather than getting formal employment.

Mr Ali says the major reason that he has not quit the trade is that it pays well.

“Many of us are either Standard Eight or Form Four leavers. But this job has enabled us to earn good cash. You can imagine in a good season, you can earn as high as Sh3,000 per day. That’s better than staying in an office,” said Mr Ali.

But Lamu beach operators and tour guides said the county and the national government should address the concerns they have so as to boost their industry.

For example, they want sanitation in places like Lamu Old Town improved so that tourists are not turned off just because of a dirty environment.

“Lamu Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage site that has been a key tourist attraction site for decades. Many tourists have been complaining about poor waste disposal,” said Swaleh Bakari. 

“The devolved government needs to improve the cleanliness of our town, the beaches and the Indian Ocean as a whole to encourage tourists to visit.”

Alwy Sule urged the national government to boost security in Lamu so that tourists can have the confidence to visit.

“For several years, we've had cases of Al-Shabaab attacking parts of Lamu, especially the mainland,” Mr Sule said. 

“But it has been generalised in reporting that the whole of Lamu is unsafe. The government should make extra efforts to completely end Al-Shabaab attacks in Lamu so that more tourists can come.”