Life is a beach, let us light some firewood to keep hope alive
Reuben Mwambingu @reubenmwambingu
On a warm Sunday afternoon, we walk into an empty Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach popularly known as ‘Pirates’ in Mombasa.
On an ordinary day, the beach would have been a beehive of activities, with revellers soaking in the sun and swimming in the waters.
However, on this particular day the swashing of ocean waves crashing against the shoreline and the feeble whooping of swans flying above the ocean seems to be the only ambience defining the beach environs.
Along the sandy beach, we bump into Anthony Mwalekwa, a local beach operator carrying a bunch of firewood on his shoulders.
The firewood business, he says has now become part of his daily hustle to make ends meet after beach operations were brought to a halt when Covid-19 struck the country in March this year.
Mwalekwa, 47, is popular for renting tube floaters to revellers and holiday makers at the beach. He has done the job since 1995.
In 2000, at the height clamour by a section of Coast hoteliers to have “rogue beach boys” tamed, Mwalekwa alongside a group operators, registered Public Beach Tube Renters group.
“We started with 15 members and later it expanded to 24 members. We have over 300 tube floaters, which we rent out to revellers at Sh50 each per session,” says Mwalekwa, who claims on a normal day he takes home up to Sh1,000.
But this figure, Mwalekwa, who is the group’s chairman, can triple during the holiday seasons of April, August and December.
Before the first Covid-19 case was announced in the country on March 13, the father of two says he was anxiously preparing to make a kill during the April holiday season.
But on March 15, just two days after the first case was announced Mombasa County ordered the indefinite closure of public beaches and recreation areas, including Mama Ngina Waterfront Park.
Being a port of entry with the proximity to the port and Moi International Airport, Mombasa was considered a likely hot spot for the disease. This spelt doom for beach operators.
“I was expecting several groups of visitors who had already booked for April and August holidays.
Therefore, I prepared myself well by purchasing more tubes and servicing the old ones.
The closure of the beach turned my world upside down. I became jobless overnight,” Mwalekwa says.
After complying to the stay-at-home order for a month, he depleted all his savings and decided to look for any job to survive.
“I have a family to feed. Besides, I also take care of my deceased’s brother, the late Benson Mghanga’s children.
My brother died in 2005 and his wife died in 2011. With this responsibilities, staying at home became unsustainable and so I turned to selling firewood.
I collect firewood from wherever I can find, including bushes, beside the road and just everywhere,” he says.
He sells the firewood to local cafes, and households.
“It is a really tough job because I have to wake up early and spend several hours in the bush fetching the firewood, even when it is drizzling,” he says.
Another beach operator, Bill Billale, 53, who started operating as a beach boy in the early 1980s is also wallowing in a similar crisis.
He now collects and sells plastic bottles.
“Beach has been my life. I eat, drink and breathe the beach. I started as a tour guide taking visitors on a marine park tour in a glass boat.
I speak four different foreign languages including, Italian, Germany, French, and Finnish, which I all learnt while handling visitors at the beach. But now I am jobless,” he says.
For the beach operators, Covid-19 has hit them hard.
“Beach operators have been paying a Sh4,000 tourism license annually since 2015. As you can see, we even have our badges, but now we have been reduced to paupers.
To make matters worse, just the other day, the County Government came and destroyed our items.
Even if we resume, it will be difficult for us to get back on our feet,” says Mwalekwa.
The operators are hoping that with resumption of flights on Saturday last week, their lives will go back to normal.