The Blog

Life in Kenya's Italy

'Bella, you go to the supermarket?'

'Yes, please,' I say to the taxi driver.

He takes us past the Italian butchery, the Italian cafe, the Italian restaurants, another Italian cafe (the one R thinks is frequented by Interpol's Most Wanted, and, probably, Italy's Most Tattooed) and to the Italian supermarket where the Italian cashier and I can never understand more than a few words that the other one speaks.

I have always loved Italy. The year after I finished school, while the rest of my family went to Tuscany (they discovered when they got there that Dad had booked the hotel for the month before), I hopped over to Rome with my friend Chris. It was a hot, restless summer.

We made our way, Chris and I, through an intricate maze of cobbled streets and alleyways, darting into cafes to buy iced water to pour over our heads as we walked, in an effort to beat the heat as temperatures soared. We wandered and strolled and lost ourselves in Rome, took in a night time jazz festival, toured the Coliseum and dined every night on pasta and wine. My parents and brothers, their accommodation woes now sorted, caught the train down to see The Vatican and my little brother came running to me across St Peter's Square.

R isn't sure he needs to trek all the way to Italy; not since we wound up in Kenya's own version of it, where it appears that anyone who isn't Italian and who stays long enough soon becomes one.

Malindi is an old Swahili town on the north coast, at the mouth of the Galana River, a couple of hours' drive from Mombasa. More in traffic. You can see the signs to Garissa and Somalia the further north you go, though it would take a long time to reach them, off the noisy, dusty tarmac road, over dustier, rougher terrain and deep into the bush.

Friends and I once took the bus from Old Mombasa Town, through Malindi and onto Lamu, as far north as we could go. We travelled all day in convoy with chickens squashed and squawking at our feet. Soldiers stopped the driver at a security check point after Malindi, made us all disembark and present our passports. Lamu County, which became known to the wider world a decade later after a deadly attack on the village of Mpeketoni, was not our final destination. We were heading to Lamu Island, often confused in the foreign press with mainland Lamu, which could not be described as a holiday hotspot.

Lamu Island, part of the Lamu Archipelago of Kenya, belongs to a separate time and place. A haunt of both independent travellers and European royals, Lamu is one of the oldest and most enduring Swahili settlements in East Africa, imbued with tradition and evoking in sight, sound and approach much that modern life does not. I felt almost as though I had been transported back a few hundred years. There are no roads, only alleyways and footpaths. Residents move around by foot, donkey or dhow.

Like its island neighbour, history seeps out of Malindi's every pore. But while Lamu feels anchored to a more linear past, Malindi has gone through several different eras, from the early Arab and Chinese traders in the 14th Century, when Malindi was rivalled only by Mombasa for dominance on the East African coastline, to the Portuguese sailors who came to rule and, later, European settlers.

The Germans left their mark on Malindi's development (it is now the largest town in Kilifi County), when it was transformed into a resort town popular with tourists. So did the Italians, many of whom never left. The Italian embassy is the only foreign mission with a consulate office in Malindi.

There is nothing stranger than when a Kenyan speaks Swahili with an Italian accent.

Austerity measures brought us from Mombasa to Malindi. These measures covered our whole household, including the dog, though for her there were no downsides as it meant more of whatever we cooked. Eight months since registering our business, we were still wading through the life-shortening process of getting it up and running. R had read, too late and with envy, of the two day processing time in Rwanda. In Kenya, someone always seemed to be on an extended lunch break when we needed a particular licence issued. But we took heart where we could and agreed that at least those phone lines still worked. Others were often either out of date or missing a digit.

We found a small, Swahili style apartment in the bush which was closer to the road than we thought. The living room would vibrate as trucks and cars rattled and thundered past. Laying awake at night as a breeze billowed through the open windows, I could see their headlights rushing through the trees. I wondered which trucks were going to Somalia and which ones were coming back.