The gaze of the African coastal dwellers was always directed toward the outside world, beyond the horizon at sea. They had little connection with the interior. For hundreds of years, Arabian, Persian, and Asian traders arrived in their sailing ships on the monsoon winds, only to depart a few months later with valuable goods. They discovered an endless treasure of cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh…

Africans with Asian eyes. Yes, they exist. Because the Asians came to the East African coast a long time ago. Even before the white Europeans.

The origin of the Swahili culture

The gaze of the African coastal dwellers was always directed towards the outside world, beyond the sea’s horizon. They maintained limited connections with the inland regions. For hundreds of years, Arab, Persian, and Asian traders arrived on their sailing ships carried by the monsoon winds, departing months later with their trade goods. They found an endless treasure trove of cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh. Asian perfumers paid large sums of money for small quantities of the fragrant ambergris expelled by stranded whales. In those times, a sailing ship could carry 80 tons, enough to furnish every room in the palace of an Indian grand prince and deliver libido-stimulating rhinoceros horn to a dozen sultans.

About a thousand years ago, Arabs intermingled with Africans, giving rise to the mixed race known as the Swahili. Whites (Portuguese) and Asians (Chinese) also visited the thriving centers like Lamu and other islands, leaving traces of their DNA among the local residents. History has gifted the coastal regions with a unique blend of races and tribes.


The relationship between Kenya and China

At the train station in Miritini, not far from Mombasa city, there is a bronze statue of the Chinese explorer Zheng He, who traveled to the Kenyan coast in the fifteenth century. One of the ships in his mighty armada suffered a shipwreck, and the crew swam to the island of Pate, part of the Lamu archipelago. The statue of Zheng He in Miritini was created in China, using Chinese materials, by Chinese artists. This is where the issue lies in the relationship between Kenya and China, or more broadly, between China and Africa: the African part of the growing collaboration with China is far too small. This discrepancy frustrates many Africans and sours the relationship.

Koert Lindijer, Africa correspondent for NRC,, and NOS Radio. Photo by Andy Troy.

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"A Chinese person never asks you: How are you? The question is rather: how's business?"

Kenya was late in embracing China. Forty years ago, the relationship with China was based on ideology. The Chinese constructed a railway in socialist Tanzania to provide landlocked states around racist South Africa with access to the sea for their goods. The Mombasa to Nairobi railway built by China does not carry such an ideological label, but it does come with a hefty price tag. It will take Kenya at least another ten years to pay off the $3.8 billion railway, and that’s why the management is jointly handled by Chinese and Kenyan personnel until the debt is settled.

Growing tensions

This frustrates the Kenyans. They wonder why the Chinese always put such a strong stamp on their projects and take away their jobs. “Kenya Airways recently flew to New York with much fanfare,” Joseph Kamau, a Nairobi trader, told me recently. “The pilot and the entire crew were Kenyan. So why are the train drivers Chinese?”
I met Joseph Kamau in Nairobi on Lithuli Avenue, where he runs a shop selling computer equipment, all of which comes from China. With Chinese investments, hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants came to Africa. Along the railway towns, there are yellow buildings and compounds where Chinese laborers live in relative seclusion. Kenyans have limited interaction with these contract workers, who often keep to themselves. However, the private Chinese entrepreneurs who came for trade are often a sore point for many Kenyans. “A Chinese person never asks, ‘How are you?’ It’s always, ‘How’s business?'” Joseph explained. “They never invite you for tea, they never act socially. The moment they see an African, they say, ‘Buy from me, buy, buy.'”
It’s purely a business relationship – not out of love, but for money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, as the (capitalist) world operates in such a manner these days.

Increasing debt

It does mean that African countries need to be cautious. African countries have seen a dramatic increase in their debt over the past ten years, and while only a portion of it is owed to China, the question arises whether such a debt burden is sustainable. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta insists that it is. His perspective is that Kenya is making a substantial industrial leap forward, which requires borrowed funds. The railway and other infrastructure projects will eventually pay for themselves. This could take years, and Kenya has entered an economic danger zone due to its rapidly rising debt to China, which stands at ten billion dollars. After Angola and Ethiopia, Kenya has the third-highest debt owed to China in Africa.

The “Chinese invasion of Africa since the turn of the century” strikes a chord with the Western world. Commentators and politicians issue warnings of “new colonialism and imperialism.” Similar sentiments are increasingly voiced within Africa itself. Perhaps. However, Western criticism of developments in Africa now sounds increasingly hollow. Over the centuries, among all the outsiders who arrived on Africa’s shores, the whites had the longest-lasting and arguably the most disastrous impact. Western modesty seems appropriate here. Meanwhile, as Chinese influence dramatically increases, white influence on Africa is dramatically decreasing. The question now is, what comes next?




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