If it weren’t for the oppressive humidity and the slight scent of frangipani, you might think you were in Italy.
In the corner of a restaurant, a skinny woman with brassy blonde hair, diamante earrings and skin the color of old leather pushes the remains of her penne al pomodoro around on the plate, before finally giving up and signaling to the Kenyan waiter: “Un espresso, perfavore!”
A TV booms in the corner, a news anchor relaying Italy’s latest political woes; watching intently, a heavy-set man in his late ’60s, tufts of greying hair sticking out from under his collar, sighs and shakes his head before taking a long, deep drag on his cigarette. His companion, a Kenyan girl in her early twenties, keeps her eyes firmly on the screen of her phone, not bothering to hide the look of tedium from her face.
It’s low-season in Malindi, a small town on the Kenyan coast where the Galana River spills its muddy waters into the Indian Ocean. An important port city since at least the 13th century, Malindi has been settled over centuries by Arab traders, the Portuguese (explorer Vasco de Gama met Malindi authorities in 1498 to sign a trade agreement, and the coral pillar he built still stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the ocean), the British, and most recently by thousands of Italians.
It is a place of stunning natural beauty, where sinewy palm trees line pearly white beaches and tufts of cerise bougainvillea’s creep up the crumbling walls that run along the coastal road.
Perhaps this is why Italians started coming here in the 1970s, when it was still a secluded, unspoiled little town. Or maybe it was the fresh lobsters, octopus, calamari, and shrimp, caught at dawn and cooked on dug out fire pits by beach boys hustling hard to make a dollar or two. To some, it was the prospect of leaving everything behind and starting all over again that made Malindi so attractive.
The very first Italians, though, came in the name of science. In 1963 a team lead by a young space engineer called Luigi Broglio began the construction of a satellite launch pad some 30 kilometres north of Malindi as part of partnership between NASA and CRA, Italy’s space agency.
On April 26, 1967, Broglio and his team launched the San Marco 2, the first of many satellites that would be sent into orbit from the East African coast. With the project came Italian engineers, researchers, and technicians, some of whom stayed and settled down, bringing their families with them.
By the 1980s Italians were flocking to Malindi, buying up all the prime beachfront real estate. During the construction wave of the 1990s they built dozens of hotels and villaggi, the quintessentially Italian-style resorts where tourists can speak Italian, eat Italian, and dance to Italian music. Malindi became the place to be for Italy’s rich and famous: politicians, footballers, and veline—the bikini clad dancers who are a mainstay of Italian quiz shows—mingled in private clubs, beach bars, and Italians-owned casinos. With the advent of package holidays and charter flights, the rest of Italy followed.
Before the Eurozone crisis, the number of Italians living in Malindi was close to the 4,000 mark, while 30,000 more would come and go throughout the year. They opened restaurants, gelaterie, and supermarkets selling mozzarella and home-made pasta, started tour companies and import businesses. In 2007, Formula One’s playboy par excellence Flavio Briatore, who in the 1980s was convicted for fraud and later, in 2008, was forced off the F-1 team after a race-fixing scandal, announced that he would build the Billionaires Club, “Malindi’s most luxurious resort.”
“If it were not for the Italians we would have nothing” Giovanni told me over a bottle of mnazi, a local alcoholic drink of fermented palm-tree sap. A small, sharply dressed tour guide who carries a wooden cane and wears dozens of thick beaded bracelets, Giovanni speaks Italian with a lilting Milanese accent and likes to talk about his love of Italy and Italian women.
But at the mnazi den his opinion was not a popular one. Speaking in Italian accents from the whole length of the boot, locals bemoaned Malindi’s seedier side, and spoke about the sex tourism and the tension between locals and Italians.
“They don’t respect us. They come here and think they are better, they control the tourism industry and tell other Italians not to trust locals, ever, so we can’t get any work” said Paolo, a local who spends his day walking up and down the beach trying to flog snorkeling day trips and wooden trinkets to Italian tourists.
“The Kenyan coastal resort town of Malindi is schizophrenic: hundreds of Italians […] dominate the town’s economic lifeline, a tourism industry that caters to tens of thousands of European sun-seekers annually” reported a leaked 2005 cable written by the then U.S. ambassador. “Some” it continues, “are involved in feeding the town’s skyrocketing illegal drug consumption.” Just a year earlier, a 73-year-old Italian man and his Venezuelan wife were arrested after 700 kilos of narcotics were seized from a speed boat stored on their land.
Malindi’s reputation as a shady place, coupled with the combined impact of Italy’s economic crisis, Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence, and the deadly 2013 Westgate terror attack have had a devastating effect on its tourism industry, and the once glamorous town has become the subject of knowing looks and whispered conversations.
In 2012, Kenyan journalist Paul Gitau wrote an article exposing the Italian community’s underworld of money laundering, prostitution rackets, and protection for fugitives. The Law Society of Kenya (LSK), he wrote, had enough evidence to prove that coastal town was firmly in the grip of the Italian Mafia, and Eric Mutua, the chairman of LSK, is quoted as saying that the Mafia “have taken full control of Malindi. They are in control of police, courts and lawyers.” According to Gitau’s sources, Italian criminal networks had such an extensive influence over the corrupt judicial system that they could live and operate without fear of arrest. “Malindi is controlled by foreigners. They have established a club of impunity. The town is full of foreign thieves and it is very easy for anyone to come and stay here” said Mutua. Gitau almost paid for the article it with his life. He received threats and a warning that the Italian community was “meeting to decide what to do about him” and was forced to hire personal security and spend some time in hiding.
Although it is difficult to confirm the extent of Italian criminality in Malindi (incredibly, there has never been a full blown investigation into the criminal networks that link the Italian Mafia with the Kenyan coast), suspicions and gossip are rife, sometimes reaching fantastical levels.
“See that guy over there? He killed a local woman, everyone knows it, but he pays a lot of bribes so he walks around free” one young Kenyan guy told me, pointing to a chubby, bald white man walking down the street. “And the hotel around the corner? It’s always empty, the only reason the owner got it was so he could clean his drug money.”
In his book Mafia on the Move: How Organized Crime Conquers New Territories, Italian author and Mafia expert Federico Varese writes that the East African coast is an emerging criminal hub, and that Malindi especially has become a place where Italian Mafiosi come and launder their dirty money.
“Traditionally there is a lot of Italian tourism there in Malindi,” writes Varese. “[Criminal networks] need to invest in profitable businesses, many times abroad. They do it in communities that they know… where they have friends and shady financial advisors.”
On Malindi’s main drag, just opposite Karen Blixen, one of the Italian-owned restaurants where people meet for an espresso and a gossip, is the concrete shell of a mall. On the top floor, staring down on the empty car park, is a large golden statue of a Buddha and a sign reading “Mario’s Buddha Fashion Lounge and Restaurant.” The owner of the boarded up club, Mario Mele, was arrested and extradited to Italy in 2017. Known as “The King of the Discotheques” in Sardegna, where he managed some of the island’s most exclusive clubs, Mele had left Italy for Malindi in 2013, fleeing an international arrest warrant for fraudulent bankruptcy for 17 million euros. He then spent almost five years hiding in plain sight on the Kenyan coast where he bought several clubs and hosted tasteful events like “Ladies Wet T-shirt Contest” and “Waitress in Bikini Night.”
“He used to talk about it and boast that no one could touch him here,” one Italian man told me. “He felt like a king.”
“Maybe he just stopped paying the right people” long term resident Armando Tanzini said about Mele’s extradition. “There’s no law here, so you just have to pay the right people. It’s ugly. Some people here have escaped Italy because of vulgar, vulgar crimes.”
Tanzini himself is a controversial figure. Originally from Tuscany, he arrived in Malindi as a hunting guide almost 50 years ago and later opened The White Elephant, one of Malindi’s most exclusive resorts. He is known as a shrewd businessman, a sculptor, poet, philosopher, architect, a womanizer, and an eccentric. He happily cultivates this image by telling endless stories about his contact with other dimensions, the six or seven attempts on his life by secret services, his many lovers, and about the time he saw a flying saucer hovering above the Indian Ocean.
Tanzini, who on his website says he loves Africa because it is “innocent and poor,” hit the headlines in 2015 for representing Kenya at the Venice Biennale as part of a panel described as “a frightening manifestation of neo-colonialism vulgarly presented as multiculturalism” and “primitivism at its very worst.”
When I visited him in his villa he told me that he is inspired by the tribal artworks of the Giriama tribe, one of the ethnic groups that live on the coast.
“See this?” he asked, pointing to a wooden totem about a meter tall. “It’s very powerful, no one knows this but they were built to communicate with other dimensions.” He found dozens of them while hunting in the forest decades ago, and took them. The totems are sacred to the Giriama, and removing them goes against all their spiritual beliefs. The Giriama stopped erecting the totems long ago, fearing they would be stolen.
Recently Tanzini was asked to give them back.
“What for? They don’t appreciate these things, they’ll just burn them.” Many Italian residents are keen for people to look beyond Malindi’s bad reputation, to focus instead on its beautiful beaches and crystalline waters. But perhaps it’s precisely because of Malindi’s natural beauty that the ugly—the corruption, the sleaziness, and the mutual distrust and lack of respect for local culture—stands out so clearly.