Kenya’s ‘Little Italy’

Beacon
Malindi, Kenya

Late afternoon football in Malindi (Tristan McConnell)
Late afternoon football in Malindi (Tristan McConnell)

At 8.30 every morning chef Luca Rossi goes looking for fish. He steers his 100cc motorbike out of the gated compound and along a potholed, sand-fringed ribbon of tarmac towards the Malindi seafront.

The first stop is a rough single-room building. Outside, a fishmonger chops a small hammerhead shark into thick slices. Inside lobster, red snapper and grouper fill two chest fridges. What Rossi wants are jumbo prawns: hard to find and expensive now.

He pays 2,200 Kenya shillings ($24) for the only kilo the fishmonger has. Cleaned, split and grilled it will be enough for just three portions at the upmarket restaurant where Rossi is head chef.

The thirty-two year old arrived last year becoming the latest in a long string of Italian arrivals turning Malindi into a Kenyan town with a distinctly Italian flavour.

The proprietor of the next fish shop is a bearded balding Kenyan man with a wrestler’s build known as Branzino, or ‘Sea Bass’. He greets Rossi with a familiar smile and a ‘Ciao!’

As Sea Bass strides towards the beach Rossi follows. Not missing a step Sea Bass unbuttons his shirt, kicks off his sandals, drops his shorts, grabs a basket off the sand and marches into the sea in his underpants. He wades out to a just-arrived fishing boat. The hull of the triangular-sailed wooden dhow is full of kingfish and slickly shining yellow fin tuna.

“I’ll take them all,” says Rossi with a grin as Sea Bass drops an 18.5kg brace of tuna into a wheelbarrow. That evening they will be on the menu as sashimi and steak.

Rossi is sous-chef at Cipriani’s in Monte Carlo but is in Malindi to open the Billionaire Resort restaurant. Its owner is the flamboyant Italian tycoon Flavio Briatore.

In Monte Carlo if Rossi wants something for the kitchen he makes a phone call. In Malindi he gets to choose every fish, prawn, crab and clam himself, and he loves it. “Compare here to there?” he asks incredulous. “You can’t.

In the kitchen a team of Kenyan cooks assists him. On the restaurant floor pizza chef Gino Parlato is an Italian import. So is the Maitre D’Hotel and the two white waitresses, something pretty much unheard of in Kenya.

One night in January Briatore played the exuberant host. He glad-handed guests and dined with ex-girlfriend Naomi Campbell and friends. A DJ spun Shakira’s World Cup hit ‘Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)’ intercut with the refrain “Flavio, Flavio, Flavio… Briatore!”.

Briatore sent a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne to every table with sparklers attached to the neck. Diners drained the bottles then the restaurant emptied into the casino. It was a typical evening.

Rossi is a recent Italian arrival in Malindi. One of the originals is Armando Tanzini, a seventy year old big game hunter turned artist. His work adorns the town’s hotels and grander houses. Tanzini bought his first property in 1969 and has since helped drive the Italianisation of Malindi.

Tanzini found a sleepy seaside town. It had unpaved roads, crumbling Swahili buildings and two hotels: the British colonial Lawford’s and an American place called Sinbad.

He also found a paradise of tropical weather, fish-filled seas, coral reefs, pristine beaches and forests of fat-trunked baobabs. It was all far from the reach of pesky governments and authority.

“Malindi appeared to me the most beautiful piece of paradise that had fallen down on the planet,” says Tanzini as he gazes out towards the ocean from his broad veranda. The baobabs and unspoiled beauty reminded him of ‘Le Petit Prince’, a philosophical tale of childlike innocence and loss by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

“I think the planet of the Petit Prince is here,” says Tanzini. “For sure I love Italy like I love my mother, but my girlfriend is Africa, probably my wife,” he says. Outside of the metaphor, Tanzini is not married.

An aerospace engineer called Luigi Broglio began the transformation of Malindi. He came to oversee construction of the San Marco space platform and, after that, the launch of Italy’s first satellite in 1964.

With Broglio came engineers, electricians, builders and plumbers, explains Freddie del Curatolo. The forty-five year old restaurant-owner, writer, musician and bon vivant is an authority on the history of Italians in Malindi.

Curatolo’s place is the chic Jahazi Bar and Restaurant serving espressos and Italian-inflected local dishes. When Curatolo’s father opened the first pizzeria in Malindi in the 1970s things were simpler.

Then the customers were, “Normal low-class people coming here for work,” says Curatolo. “But they started to talk about what they found.”

As word got around the wealthy began to arrive building winter retreats along the Malindi beachfront. Political upheaval in Italy and attacks by the Brigate Rosse terror group triggered an influx in the late 70s and 80s. Exiles from both sides of the political spectrum arrived. Fascists, communists, Mafiosi, terrorists and spies fleeing attacks, retaliation, assassins or justice.

Away from home soil their differences evaporated. “Here they meet one another and you find a fascist with a communist eating together a pizza,” says Curatolo. It was a chance to launder their reputations and begin again. “They become people with no past and a good present,” he says.

The 1980s saw the arrival of big hotels, charter flights and mass tourism. Tanzini built the first Italian-owned hotel in 1985. He called it ‘The White Elephant’ to taunt those who told him it would never succeed. More Italians came in the early 1990s as the former colony of Somalia collapsed into anarchy.

Today there are dozens of pizzerias and Italian-run shops selling imported goods. The main Italian supermarket is ‘Sartoria Di Verona’. The manager says buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto crudo, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Italian wines are most popular.

Even the Kenyan shops have an Italian flavor with signs in Italian and staff who speak the language.

Many locals have learned Italian to make a living. Barman Josphat Muchiri moved to Malindi twenty years ago and picked up Italian as he went along. “Most of the investors in tourism in Malindi are Italian so if you want to do some business you have to learn Italian,” he says.

Manju Rajab owns ‘Prezzi Fantastici’, a popular dressmaker and fabric shop in the old part of town. As the afternoon heat subsides Malindi wakes from its torpor. The shop buzzes with Italian visitors ordering dresses handmade from hundreds of bolts of colourful cloth lining the walls, floor to ceiling.

Manju knows many of her repeat customers by name, takes down measurements in Italian and calls out “Va bene!” as they leave.

The Kenyan owner of ‘Gelateria Oasis’, Miriam Wanjiko, learned Italian three years ago. She is now fluent and married an Italian last year.

Wanjiko was surprised when she arrived in Malindi for the first time in 2008. “All the signs were written in Italian, I thought does it mean Malindi is only for Italians although it is in Kenya?” she says.

During the busiest times of year her ice cream parlour — renowned as the best in Malindi — produces ninety litres of ice cream a day. The ice cream comes in forty-two different flavours imported from Vicenza in northeastern Italy. Wanjiko mixes them with Kenyan milk and fresh local fruit.

Italian is the language of commerce. It is also the language of commercial sex. “I start with ‘Ciao Bella! Come stai,’ and then go from there,” says Thomas. The thirty year old beach boy is better known as ‘Mestolo’ which means ladle in Italian. He earned the nickname while working as a cook on a construction site run by Italians. He has shoulder length dreadlocks and high, fine cheekbones.

Mestolo spends his days trawling the beach for white girlfriends. He chats, flatters and charms as he goes. “I love white ladies,” says Mestolo.

Big differences of age and wealth mark the relationships between beach boys and their Italian girlfriends. But romances often last entire holidays and sometimes for years of repeat visits. It’s transactional but falls somewhere short of prostitution.

Malindi has one thousand full-time Italian residents, thousands of Italian homeowners and fifty thousand annual visitors. Fifty-eight year old hotelier Marco Vancini is the Italian Consulate in Malindi. He says language and food explain why Italians come to Malindi, and so often stay.

“Italians do not speak other languages and if they find their own food they are happy,” says Vancini. “Before it was a British colony, now we call it an Italian colony.”

For Malindi’s Italian residents freedom and escape also play key roles.

For Tanzini that means the freedom to find inspiration, create art and, he admits, keep a shifting harem of young muses-cum-mistresses. It is also freedom from Italy’s corrupt politics and heavy taxes. “It’s not fair to work under the dominion of politicians and banks,” he says.

For Curatolo it is the freedom “to imagine a new life. Every day you feel free to make your life as you always dreamed,” he says.

For Briatore, his entourage and guests it is the freedom to indulge their billionaire fantasies. And for Rossi, the chef, it is the simple freedom of getting on his motorbike every morning to see what the fishermen have brought in.