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Living in a Land of Foreign Travel Advisories

My friend had tried contacting the British Embassy to find out whether there was anything we residents and long-stayers should worry about, but got put through to the Foreign Office in London. The person on the other end asked what she could tell them, since she was the one on the ground.

'Jo, what's happening in Mombasa?!'

I am sitting in our living room, watching a murder of crows circling the outside veranda. They are preparing to swoop in and dive bomb the dog in order to steal her food. It is a Saturday morning and I am thinking of persuading R to take a walk with me along the beach. Walking is more my thing than his. I haven't checked BBC News yet or been out to buy a paper so I have no idea what's happening in Mombasa.

'I don't know,' I say into the receiver. 'Should I?'

My friend is in Nairobi and had hoped that I'd be able to tell her more about a recent grenade attack near a hotel bar where we live in Nyali, a sprawling but self-contained suburb off the island. There was another attack somewhere in Mombasa town, but it won't be long before the details start to fade from my memory, which is why, at the time of writing, there isn't much I can say about it.

When my friend calls, British and American travel advisories are warning against all but essential travel to the Kenyan Coast, apart from Diani in the south, which gets a special mention for not being a cause for alarm, and Mombasa airport. Presumably, this means that if you're following the advice and aren't intending to stay in Diani, you'll have to spend your holiday in the airport.

One wonders why the travel advisories don't also tell some British nationals to consider the benefits of being less auspicious and whether it is wise to arrive in a potential target area (or anywhere, for that matter) carrying suitcases draped in the Union Jack.

My friend had tried contacting the British Embassy to find out whether there was anything we residents and long-stayers should worry about, but got put through to the Foreign Office in London. The person on the other end asked what she could tell them, since she was the one on the ground.

As she relays this to me, there is nothing we can do but laugh.

The advisories came in response to a string of grenade attacks that have hit parts of Kenya since the beginning of 2014, though they have happened before. These attacks are apparently in retaliation for Kenya's presence in Somalia. Kenyan and African Union troops crossed into Somalia from Kenya in October 2011 to fight the Al Shabab militant group. I remember a conversation I had with my old friend Godfrey just after it was announced. We were standing outside a petrol station on the way to Naivasha.

'Kenya has a right to defend its borders,' Godfrey said, emphatically.

I remember the unease I felt. No-one knew then what the consequences would be.

I loved Kenya before I loved R. That our life together has so far unfolded here seems almost inevitable. I can't imagine how it could have happened any other way, or with anyone else.

When tourists started to pull back from Kenya, it created a tidal wave of grief for individuals, families and communities whose lives depend on tourism.

On drives into the bush further north, R and I came across ghost towns and villages that fell eerily silent, as though a plague had come and buried all the villagers. Stray items of clothing hung from wooden polls, sand was piled up against remote, seafront hotels that had been abandoned long ago, unfinished buildings lay in ruin and there was otherwise no sign of anyone. They had all upped and left.

By August 2014, in excess of 7,000 people working in hotels and restaurants on the coast would lose their jobs and by early 2015, an estimated 21,000 people in the tourism sector as a whole would be out of work, some only temporarily as certain hotels closed when they weren't busy and opened again when the season picked up, and the rest, indefinitely.

A few tour operators left, taking current holidaymakers out of Diani in the process. What irked me about the media coverage in all of this, both here and in Europe, was that travel advisories became 'travel bans', the decisions taken by independent tour operators now represented an evacuation of British nationals by the UK government and old advisories were mentioned as though they were new. The beleaguered British High Commissioner to Kenya had to set the record straight by writing an open letter in a national newspaper.

Half the time, I did not recognise the Kenya that was being beamed back to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, certain things about it that could have been reported on, weren't.

We mostly knew about isolated incidents when one or both of us received a stream of messages from friends and family asking if we were okay. Our reality usually is different to the way it tends to look from the outside.

I have since done the same thing to friends in Paris. I expect I will again.

I have never felt unsafe here. There are a lot of things Kenya could work on but these are frustrations you would largely be unaware of and unperturbed by if you didn't live here. It remains a country where strangers will help you and invite you in for a cup of tea. Travel warnings and terror threats have not affected the way that we live. I am aware of them though. They sit in the back of my mind, just as they did after the London tube bombings whenever I travelled on the underground, and I want sometimes to go back to a time when these things had not yet burned into people's psyche.

I travel like I always have, but my thoughts when I do it are not always as free as they once were. It depends on where I am. But I have always believed that it is important to experience, and try to understand, the world outside of one's own locality.

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