Ida, a German woman in her mid-fifties, strolls down Diani beach on the coast of Kenya. Her hair is dyed blonde, her bikini is blue and she’s eagerly waiting for her new boyfriend to join her for drinks. “He just has a way about him,” she says, and her smile brightens as Faridi, a tall dark man in his mid-twenties strolls up. They embrace and take a seat in front of the Indian Ocean’s white sand and rolling waves.
This scene, which plays out down the African coast daily, is part of an ever-increasing phenomenon. Older women, often from Europe, single and married alike, flock to the beaches of East Africa in search of their very own beach boy. A holiday fling that they can brag back home about. The men certainly aren’t difficult to find. Wander onto any beach and you’ll find groups of men congregating, calling out to Western women who wander into their path. While most catcalls go ignored and most women find it harassing, it only takes one relatively wealthy woman to show their behavior pays off in the end.
It would be easy to blame beach boy sex tourism on the machismo culture of East Africa. Yet here in Kenya those who live near the beaches have a much different idea on their origins. “It’s the kids who are given money, just grown up and bartering with their looks in a different way,” one local woman told me. “If you see a child on the beach during mid day, that child is not in school, and if he is not in school, he is asking and begging and using the ocean for his means in life. It’s easy to do here, it provides everything. Those kids grow up entrenched in beach culture, and so the beach boys are born. They are a touristic invention. They only exist because they’ve learned rich white people will pay them either out of guilt or desperation.”
On a hot Saturday afternoon, the beach is lined with men in a variety of costume. The Maasai people, perhaps the most marketed ethnic group in all of Africa, are used to the point of nauseum. Young men, mostly of Samburu origin, dress in traditional Maasai swaths of fabric and intricate beaded jewelry. They walk hand in hand with women twice their age who honestly believe that they are in a relationship with a member of an ancient tribal tradition. These relationships are often extended even after the women leave, with the “warriors” keeping in touch through text and email. It is never long before something comes up. Before some aunt or sister ends up in the hospital and money must be sent immediately to reconcile the situation. Some Western women fall for such ploys, although most drift off after they return from their holidays.
The disparity in age and attractiveness is the most common vein in these Western women/beach boy relationships. Taking full advantage of this is often excused away by those caught up in the trade. However, assuming beach boys are sex-starved Don Juans lucky to bed middle-aged white women would be a mistake. While some do engage in long term courtships, they always risk being ostracized from their own community. The idea of a first born son going and joining a beach boy gang instead of getting married and raising a family can be devastating, especially in a culture that puts so much emphasis on origin and tribe. These same men commonly abuse drugs and face harassment by the Kenyan mafia, which keeps tight control on just how much money can be made at the beach.
Common opinion dismisses the lifestyle of a beach boy as an easy one, but this hardly seems to be the case. The practice is unsustainable, and there is very little prospect for the men after they’ve grown past their expiration date. What perhaps starts as a life of being a cute kid making change on the beach in exchange for smiles, often turns into one of cocaine addiction and eventual poverty. Without family or social support for these men, the idea of turning to a life of crime is not only attractive, but likely.
Later that evening, at 40 Thieves, a landmark club in Diani, Kenya, the bass pumps through speakers and booze soaks through the crowd. Easily identified cases of exploitation through poverty seem cut-and-dried as you watch young, beautiful Kenyan women dance for men with graying chest hair, tufting out of their half buttoned up shirts. Their red, wrinkled faces smile as they take their purchases by the hand and lead them out into the night.
Most of these Western women laugh when considering their own “vacation fun” and fail to draw the parallels or feel the same levels of disgust. After all, they reason, it’s hard to “force” a man into sex. “You can’t fake an erection,” one tells me. When I mention that Viagra is actually in common trade amongst beach boys she waves me off. I later see her pin her own beach boy down and kiss him hard on the mouth. After the interaction the man excuses himself politely and makes his way to the bathroom. The woman looks nonplussed as she considers herself the pioneer of her own sexual prowess.
Occasionally you hear of long-term relationships between Western women and their Kenyan lovers. Some have even gone so far as to get their own apartments and spend months together either in Africa or in Europe. Still, the idea that a sex worker stops their trade just because of a few gifts is a common misconception that leads to more than a few genuinely confounded women and broken hearts. Despite the relationship being exploitative at its root, and drugs often being a large factor in the beach boy lifestyle, it still comes as a shock when these issues crop up.
Invariably these women, who frequent the East African sex trade and bestow cash and gifts on their prostitutes, always have a ticket out. They will enjoy their purchases and then board their flights back to Europe and North America. Without hassle or social condemnation they will return to their posts at work and continue on with whatever trajectory their life was on before. What they will leave behind, however, will almost always end in further harassment of women on the beach, the guaranteed continuation of sex tourism, and an almost inevitable end in a level of poverty that the women frequenting these men will likely never consider, let alone comprehend.