In East Africa, Safari workers struggle to survive

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As she was frying fish to pay her bills and rent, Caroline Onyango was struck by upbeat reports aired in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya this spring which noted the rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccinations. in the United States and other Western countries. For the first time in a devastating year, Onyango hoped that foreign tourists would return to East Africa, which would allow him to resume his job as a senior tour guide for a safari company.

But in early June, as international borders began to reopen and bookings increased, Kenya and many other countries in Africa experienced their strongest peak in coronavirus cases during the pandemic. With only 1% of the African continent fully vaccinated and the virus raging, several countries have been forced to lock down or impose strict measures against the virus. Drastic precautions to stop the spread have dashed hopes for a revival in foreign tourism.

“I haven’t had a job since March 2020, nothing at all. Everything dried up when the borders closed,” said Onyango, 40, who has worked in tourism for over 15 years and specializes in land adventure tours, which include wildlife viewing. and camping in remote villages. “Nationally, safaris are slowly picking up in Kenya, but it’s very competitive and we overlanders won’t have a job until travel across the country resumes. “

Before the pandemic, Kenya was Africa’s third-largest tourist destination, with tourism contributing $ 1.6 billion to the national economy and creating 1.1 million jobs, or more than 8% of the country’s jobs. The coronavirus has been disastrous: During the peak season between July and October last year, most bookings were canceled, causing layoffs and pay cuts, and many travel agencies closed. The loss of international tourism to Kenya and other East African countries, with little help from local governments or elsewhere, has decimated the livelihoods of thousands of tourism and tourism workers. hotel industry, who had to do odd jobs and borrow money to survive.

Onyango, a single mother of two, earned the equivalent of about $ 1,000 a month, which she said was enough to support her family. Now, she makes between $ 100 and $ 150 a month cooking and packing tilapia fish and sardines for neighbors, friends and customers she found through Facebook.

“So much concern”

Kenya eased its lockdown restrictions in July, but the global wave of the highly contagious delta variant, as well as low vaccination rates in the region, have kept most tourists at bay. Still, tourism workers are grateful for the small number of visitors who have flocked for safaris and coastal vacations in recent months.

“We knew we wouldn’t get the vaccines as quickly as in America and Europe,” said George Gituku, owner of Sandrage Safaris in Kenya, “so under the circumstances we are grateful to have business.” .

In 2019, Kenya received more than 2 million international visitors, a record number and an increase of almost 4% from the previous year. In 2020, overseas arrivals fell 71.5% to 579,600, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Between January and June of this year, the country welcomed just over 300,000 travelers, the state-run Tourism Research Institute reported.

Since June, Sandrage Safaris in Nairobi has received around 30 guests per month, a significant drop from the 100 guests they had on average during peak season 2019. Most visitors were Americans who were feeling optimistic after being vaccinated , Gituku said, but Kenya’s low vaccination rate – currently just over 3% of the population – has caused many of its clients to postpone.

“We are learning to live with this virus and are constantly adapting our protocols to ensure our customers have a comfortable and safe experience,” said Gituku. “So far everyone has had a great time, the migration has been amazing this year, there have been so many animals to see, and luckily no one has tested positive for COVID upon their return.”

Kathy Freedman, a retired architect from Boston, said she felt safer on her recent 10-day safari with her husband in the Masai Mara than on a hike an hour from home, where she stayed in a hotel full of guests. who, she said, did not wear masks or social distancing.

“Our kids were so worried that we were traveling so far in Kenya, but COVID is worse at home than most places,” Freedman said. “We chose the best time to go on a safari when it was not crowded. It was just us and our guide in the wilderness with the animals.”

Safari workers hope that when their customers return and share their positive experiences with friends and family, it will encourage more people to book trips. Many companies pay their employees daily rates based on the bookings they receive, which workers say is not enough for them to pay their bills and the debt they racked up over the past year.

“Whatever happens now, you have to decide whether you should spend it on your debts or use it to survive,” said Michael Segera, a 53-year-old tour operator specializing in tour logistics in the coastal city of Mombasa.

Last year, when Segera’s clients canceled their tours, he moved to Nairobi to live with his three grown children. For months, they lived on one meal a day, and Segera did odd jobs to be able to pay for basic expenses and the Wi-Fi connection her daughter needed for her online college classes.

“It’s very difficult to be a parent when you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Segera said with a deep sigh. “You feel very anxious all the time, and even though things are a little better now, I still have so many worries.”

Over the past two years, the Kenyan government has paid around $ 20 million to wildlife reserve workers to keep them operational and protect the animals from poaching, but safari workers have received no individual support. Several safari companies have managed to retain employees with reduced wages, but many operators have had to lay off their workers.

An uncertain future

Uganda, another popular safari destination in East Africa, is also experiencing a slow tourist season, even after the lockdown was partially lifted in late July. Foreign visitors fell by nearly 70% in 2020, to 473,085 against 1,547,000 in 2019, according to the country’s tourism ministry. Similar to the Kenya experience, most safari workers in Uganda find themselves heavily in debt and out of work.

Augustine Kikomeko, 46, a Kampala-based safari guide, said that in order to provide for their families, most tour guides have had to sell goods, land or their vehicles. Many have to hold multiple jobs, he said.

“The airport had opened, but there are hardly any arrivals,” said Kikomeko, a father of three who earned around $ 800 a month as a safari guide. He now earns between $ 100 and $ 200 a month washing cars and selling fresh juices.

He said many people in his industry have had to reinvent themselves to get by.

“I went on a safari in May and have another in December, but in between there is nothing,” he said. “I need to learn new trades and acquire new skills because although we try to be optimistic and optimistic about the future, it does not look good for our industry and we have to find ways to to survive.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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