Safari workers in East Africa turn to odd jobs to survive

NEW YORK • As she fried fish to pay for her bills and rent, Ms Caroline Onyango was struck by optimistic news reports broadcast in her home city of Nairobi, Kenya, this spring that noted the swift roll-out of coronavirus vaccinations in the United States and other Western countries.

For the first time in a devastating year, she grew hopeful that foreign tourists would return to East Africa, allowing her to go back to work as a senior tour guide for a safari company.

But in early June, as international borders started to reopen and bookings surged, Kenya and many other countries in Africa experienced their steepest spike of coronavirus cases during the pandemic.

With only 1 per cent of the African continent fully vaccinated, several countries were forced to lock down or impose stringent measures against the virus.

The drastic precautions to stop the spread crushed hopes for a revival in foreign tourism.

"I have not had any work since March last year," said Ms Onyango, 40, who has worked in tourism for more than 15 years.

Before the pandemic, Kenya was the third largest tourism destination in Africa, with tourism contributing US$1.6 billion (S$2.2 billion) to the national economy and creating 1.1 million jobs, or more than 8 per cent of the country's employment.

The coronavirus was disastrous: During the high season between July and October last year, most bookings were cancelled, causing layoffs and salary cuts, and many tour companies shut down.

The loss of tourism in Kenya and other East African nations, with little assistance from governments, has decimated the livelihoods of travel and hospitality workers, who have had to take on odd jobs and borrow money to survive.

Ms Onyango, a single mother of two, had been making the equivalent of around US$1,000 each month, which she said was enough to provide for her family.

Now, she earns between US$100 and US$150 a month by cooking and packaging tilapia fish for neighbours, friends and clients she found through Facebook.

Kenya eased its lockdown restrictions in July, but the worldwide surge of the highly contagious Delta variant, as well as the low vaccination rates in the region, have kept most tourists at bay.

Still, tourism workers are grateful for the small number of visitors that have been trickling in in recent months.

Since June, Sandrage Safaris in Nairobi, Kenya, has received about 30 guests a month, a significant drop from the 100 guests in the 2019 high season.

Most of the visitors were Americans who were feeling optimistic after getting vaccinated, owner George Gituku said, but Kenya's low vaccination rate - currently just over 3 per cent of the population - has caused many of his clients to postpone.

Safari workers are hoping that when their clients go back and share their positive experiences with friends and family, it will encourage more people to book trips.

Many companies are paying their employees daily rates based on bookings they receive, which workers say are not enough for them to pay their bills and the debt they accumulated last year.

"Whatever comes in now, you have to decide whether to put it towards your debts or use it to survive on," said Mr Michael Segera, a 53-year-old tour operator.

Over the past two years, the Kenyan government has paid about US$20 million to workers in wildlife conservancies to keep them operational and protect animals from poaching, but safari workers have not received any individual support.

Uganda, another popular safari destination in East Africa, is also experiencing a slow tourism season, even after partially lifting lockdown measures in late July.

Foreign visitors dropped by nearly 70 per cent last year, to 473,085 from 1,547,000 in 2019, according to the country's ministry of tourism.

Similar to the experience in Kenya, most safari workers in Uganda find themselves deep in debt and without work.

Mr Augustine Kikomeko, 46, a safari guide based in Kampala, said most tour guides have had to sell property or vehicles.

Many are having to work several jobs, he said.

Mr Kikomeko, a father of three, used to make about US$800 a month as a safari guide. He now makes between US$100 and US$200 a month, washing cars and selling fresh juice.

"I need to learn new skills because even though we are trying to be optimistic, it does not look good for our sector, and we need to find ways to survive."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2021, with the headline Safari workers in East Africa turn to odd jobs to survive. Subscribe