NAIROBI – Kenya’s ethnic bloodshed has scared away hundreds of thousands of tourists. Nairobi’s seedy nightclubs think they know just how to bring them back.
Curvaceous Kenyan women in skimpy outfits slowly, and then rapidly, gyrate to Egyptian tunes like “This is what I love. This is it. This is it” during belly-dancing theme night at the Casablanca club.
Overjoyed European and Arab men order one drink after another, oblivious to troubles gripping the east African country.
“Violence? What violence?,” asked a man from London, who would only give his middle name, Anthony, for fear of his wife.
“Everything is fine,” he said, seated on a plush couch surrounded by several young women.
Kenya is known for its bush safaris and sunny beaches. But frisky nightclubs also help tourism, its biggest hard currency earner, with revenue topping $1 billion in 2007.
Violent television images are still keeping foreigners away and officials fear the unrest may have irreparably harmed the industry.
More than 1,000 people have been killed — mostly in ethnic clashes and some by police during protests — and about 300,000 displaced since a disputed Dec. 27 election in which President Mwai Kibaki was returned to power.
Nightclubs like Casablanca are not about to give up, hoping added attractions like belly-dancing and karaoke, plus beer at half-price during happy hour, will generate big bucks again.
But ethnic tensions run deep, even worlds away from the impoverished slums where most of the bloodletting took place.
An official photograph of Kibaki on the wall — found in most businesses — stares down across Casablanca.
Sophie the bartender is proud to be a member of his Kikuyu tribe, but hides it these days. Her surname no longer appears on her badge.
“I can’t be sure who I am talking to. It could be someone from another tribe,” she said.
‘SHOW ME LOVE’
Former United Nations boss Kofi Annan, who is mediating between Kenya’s feuding political parties, hopes to strike a deal soon that will return Kenya to its status as one of Africa’s most stable and economically successful countries.
But Valentina says too much damage has been done, even to one of the world’s oldest and most resilient professions.
Sitting at the low-key Annie Oakley’s bar across town, where a few men played billiards, the sex worker says she heard of Annan’s efforts on the news, but complains that Kenya’s politicians only care about themselves.
“To hell with them. I used to have 10 customers a night. Now there is nobody. There are no foreign tourists,” she said, waving a bottle of beer in anger.
The dance floor at usually popular Florida 2000 — a legendary African fleshpot — was packed with beautiful women from countries like Kenya, Somalia and Uganda as the song “Show Me Love” blared from speakers.
But there were only a few middle-aged European men who may have wanted to do so.
In order to attract more customers, the disco is offering free entry to what it hopes will be the first 100 customers on Valentine’s Day.
Benson, a powerfully built security guard, is sceptical. He isn’t busy at all these days, unlike before the election when customers pushed and shoved their way around the joint.
Sitting at the bar in despair was Abby, a Ugandan prostitute of a certain age in a low-cut top who was wondering how she would support her four-year-old son if Kenyan politicians don’t set aside their differences.
“There is nothing we can do except wait,” she said.