All this ongoing discussion of the “blue economy” reminds me of a conversation I had with some sailors sometime in the late 1980s, at a time when I lived in Mombasa.
I was at the bar of a well-known beach resort, waiting for a friend who worked there, when these two men walked up to me and asked if I could help them with an inquiry they had. Their accents puzzled me since, from their appearance, I had assumed they were Kenyan Asians. But it turned out that they were from Madagascar.
Anyway, as they were making what were fairly routine enquiries about discounted safaris and places where affordable souvenirs could be found, a third man came up and joined us. He was black, so I assumed he was a local Mjikenda. But again I was wrong. He was Ghanaian and was very much the senior of the two sailors from Madagascar. He was the Chief Engineer on the ship that they all served on, which was docked in Kilindini for some days, allowing them to take a few days off for recreation.
At some point during a long conversation I asked the Ghanaian how had he managed to get an advanced engineering qualification in such an unusual field? Was he from a rich family that had sent him to Europe to study marine engineering?
Now if you know any Ghanaians, you will already be aware that no conversation with a well-educated, middle-aged Ghanaian is complete without some mention of Kwame Nkrumah. And this is odd because the East African equivalents of this famous Pan-Africanist and Ghana’s founding father, are not mentioned that often. You can talk to a Tanzanian for hours, and not hear him mention Dr Julius Nyerere, and we Kenyans do not often mention Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
But with Ghanaians it is absolutely guaranteed that you will hear something about Nkrumah.
And so it was the case here: My new friend told me he was from a very poor family, but “thanks to Kwame Nkrumah and his vision for Ghana” there was a government institution at which high-performing school-leavers could train in different aspects of the maritime sector, at little or no cost.
What he was referring to was the Regional Maritime Academy, which was established in Accra as far back as 1958. The only local specialised training institution I can think of which is a close parallel is the Kenya Utalii College, which has for many years offered training in hospitality for young people from all over the East African region. And certainly in its early days, Utalii did not charge any fees to those who qualified for admission.
But back to my Ghanaian friend, when I expressed surprise that Kenya did not have an equivalent institution for specialised maritime training, he answered simply, “It’s a matter of government policy. I am sure that if your government had prioritised maritime studies, I would have had a few Kenyans on my ship. As it is, there are none.”
So why do I dredge up this old story at this time?
I use it to illustrate something that is not much appreciated by ‘upcountry communities’. This is the historical injustices and epic marginalisation of the Coast, which is why the region tends to be an opposition stronghold.
For the first few decades after Independence — and specifically after the death of the first-ever Mugogo (Great Leader) of the Coast, Ronald Ngala — any initiative that would have benefited the Coast more than any other region, has never gotten very far.
The establishment of such a maritime training institution would have helped move the Kenyan Coast from the current artisanal fisheries to a fully fledged industrial-scale fishing sector, such as exists in nations like Japan, Peru, Chile, Korea and Norway, which successfully exploit this multibillion-dollar global economic sector.
And just as there are now many Kenyans working overseas in foreign hotels and resorts, there would have been Kenyan maritime specialists serving global shipping lines flying foreign flags, just like that Ghanaian engineer.