Shaken by terrorism, this Kenyan resort became a ghost town

Abandoned theme park in Diani Beach, Kenya. Tourist region suffered with terrorist attacks that prompted strict travel warnings from Western governments. (Photo by Kevin Grant/GroundTruth)

DIANI BEACH, Kenya — The Indian Ocean had retreated away toward the horizon for the afternoon, revealing a long stretch of pristine coral reef, and the five young men of Sea Safari hopped from rock to rock, deftly scooping up sand crabs and sea urchins for a closer look.

“Be careful,” said Kapo Omari, 28, leading the way from one seaweed-covered step to another, some sharper than others. “We have elephant feet.” 

Though the group laughed proudly, a sense of desperation cut through the breeze as Omari ticked off the traditional medicinal uses of each plant and creature. Again and again, he paid tribute to the natural world and to his Mijikenda tribal elders who taught him what he knows. 

The performance felt a bit hollow, as though no matter what income the group could secure that day, it would not be enough. The young men who hail from the nearby village of Ukunda do not get many customers these days.

“We really would like to have a good job and work hard,” Omari said, sitting in the shade of the stone wall protecting Diani Beach’s row of beautiful, sparsely booked resorts.

“We could be doing robberies, we could be burning trees to make charcoal. Instead, we’re coming to the beach,” Omari continues, “every single day.”

Diani is a short ferry ride and an hour’s drive south of Mombasa, a religiously mixed city where Islam first took root in Kenya centuries ago. The resort town saw a huge drop in visitors after post-election violence swept the country in late 2007.

The global economic downturn hindered recovery, then terror attacks by the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab began to escalate in 2011. Al-Shabaab struck Mombasa several times and along the coast to the city’s north, prompting strict travel warnings from Western governments.

The U.S. and U.K. lifted travel bans for government staff last year, but the U.S. State Department continued to preach caution in a new warning in 2015, citing “potential terrorist threats aimed at U.S., Western and Kenyan interests.”

To counter the rise of al-Shabaab, Kenyan authorities launched aggressive counterterrorism operations in Muslim communities. The cycle of attacks and government retaliation have created new waves of fear around Diani, as many in the tourism industry here say that Kenyan Christians are now wary of becoming targets on the coast. 

Even the quick ferry from the island of Mombasa to the southern coast is highlighted as a travel risk by the State Department. Most of the few visitors at the beachfront hotels said they had flown into the local airport instead. 

Local artists like Kevin Peter said it’s not fair to paint Diani, which does indeed feel a world away from the congestion of Mombasa, with the same brush.

“When you hear about al-Shabaab attacking, that’s not here. That’s further north. I’ve never been attacked. My friends have never been attacked,” said Peter, 29. “Security is worldwide now. No one is superior.”

Artist Kevin Peters poses with a cubist painting he created in Diana Beach, Kenya. (Photo by Kevin Grant/GroundTruth)
Artist Kevin Peters poses with a cubist painting he created in Diana Beach, Kenya. (Photo by Kevin Grant/GroundTruth)

Peter runs Bamba Bamba Arts, an open-air gallery inside a tall, wooden hut stocked with paintings just off the main road that leads to the well-guarded beach resorts. On a recent afternoon, he sat quietly, brush in hand, painting rectangles of color upon a large canvas featuring a tribal bride and groom standing side by side.

“It’s abstract,” Peter said. “Cubism.”

Surrounded by friends and partners who help with the business, music in the air, Peter said it’s been difficult to make a living since he opened shop last year. Bamba Bamba also goes days without making a sale, frustrating for a young entrepreneur whose talent is visible along the walls of the shop.

“I want to go to New York City and be a painter there,” he said. “I think it’s better than here. Here, we don’t sell for a good price. We just sell to survive. That’s the problem. I want my painting, my artwork, to take me farther than here.”

Even as the tourism business has grown anemic, there is no other industry to speak of on this part of the coast, many here say. Terror has created blowback for a generation of Kenyans already facing slim chances of full-time, salaried employment.

The evidence of a waning economy is there in the husks of closed-down resorts and amusement parks along the main stretch. It is also in the stories of those trying to get by: the masseuse who can’t seem to sell a massage, the waiter who can’t get enough shifts to support his family, the resort owner who saw an uptick in guests around the new year but is back to being almost empty some nights.

Alex Salim, one of the Sea Safari crew, said he and some of the others used to work at one of the defunct resorts several years ago, the last time any of them had a steady job. He said he feels let down by the Kenyan government, and yet not powerful enough to organize a workers’ strike.

“We just stay quiet and try to be patient,” said Salim, 24. “We’re from poor families. We don’t have the power to strike. We’re afraid because our families don’t have money or power.”

Five Sea Safari crew members pose for a group photo in Diana Beach, Kenya. (Photo by Kevin Grant/GroundTruth)
Five Sea Safari crew members pose for a group photo in Diana Beach, Kenya. (Photo by Kevin Grant/GroundTruth)

Sea Safari doesn’t own a boat, nor to do they have a marketing budget. So they do a lot of wandering the beach when the tide is low enough, and a lot of waiting. The group can go days without selling a tour, a wooden carving or a decorated coconut shell. When they bring in money, it goes to fish, vegetables and other necessities for their families in Ukunda.

The village is small and rural, mostly Christian. It’s not far from the Kongo Mosque, the oldest Muslim worship site in East Africa. Though Diani has largely avoided al-Shabaab violence, in 2013 the village of Ukunda experienced a different kind of attack.

In December 2013, a few months after an al-Shabaab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall killed 67 people, a Muslim cleric named Sheikh Suleiman Mwayuyu was followed from Mombasa by unidentified gunmen and shot dead in Ukunda, where he worked as a tailor.

Mwayuyu is one of at least 21 Mombasa-area clerics with alleged ties to al-Shabaab that have been killed by the Kenyan government since the Westgate attack, said human rights group Haki Africa.

Then in 2014, a grenade attack in a Diani bar injured 10 people. The attack went unclaimed, but the violence further discouraged Kenyan visitors, compounding the international travel advisories.

Salim of Sea Safari said the Kenyan government has failed to bolster the flagging tourism economy amid a domestic and international 

“Other governments say, “Don’t come here,’” Salim said. “And now that tourism is down, our government has abandoned us too.”

This story was produced with support from the International Center for Journalists.