There are an estimated 180,000 Chinese workers in Kenya, many of them working on infrastructure projects with state-owned companies. Their presence has spawned a micro-economy of shops and restaurants serving the growing community.
On a Monday morning at Feng Sheng Meat Shop, located in one of many Chinatowns in Nairobi, Kenya, everyone wants the attention of Dr. Lu. The affable proprietor of the Asian grocery store can periodically be seen fidgeting two black walnuts in his left hand as he instructs his employees and greets customers.
A farmer from Nyeri, about a three-hour drive from Nairobi, arrives bearing several crates of fresh chicken feet. He makes the trip nearly every week and has supplied this shop for nearly two years. The chicken feet used to be byproducts from his farm, often thrown out. Now, they’re a welcome source of income, as he delivers them weekly to Chinese grocery stores.
There are an estimated 180,000 Chinese workers in Kenya as of the end of 2019, according to official Chinese figures. Most of them work for Chinese state-owned companies, 62% of which are in manufacturing and services. They include big names like Zhongxing Construction and Sinohydro, which engages in hydropower projects.
This has spawned a micro-economy of shops and restaurants that serve the growing Chinese communities. Telecom giant Huawei hires Chinese chefs to cook for its Nairobi-based employees. International firms such as Dutch oil giant Shell and Barclays are hiring more Chinese speakers as fluency in Mandarin becomes increasingly imperative.
The relatively recent Chinese presence in Kenya has contributed to an already remarkable melting pot, from a stolid Indian-Kenyan population—a colonial legacy of the Portuguese and British—to diffuse Arabic influences on the coast, not to mention 42 native tribes.
In the 2000s, Nairobi started to develop a reputation for tech entrepreneurship, earning the title “Silicon Savannah.” Foreign direct investment for tech in particular came pouring in after the arrival of fiber optic internet in 2009. By 2019, total foreign direct investment stood at $15.7 billion.
When China’s leader, Xi Jinping, launched the Belt and Road Initiative, an economic plan to develop international relationships through massive infrastructural projects, in 2013, Nairobi garnered special attention given its reputation as the gateway to East Africa and promise as both an economic and political partner.
(Read more: What’s it like to grow up Black in China?)
In Nairobi’s Chinatowns, foodstuffs and home goods imported directly from China line the shelves. One can find everything from doubanjiang, a fermented chili bean paste, to glutinous rice flour and daikon radishes. A person can get a haircut from a Chinese barber, spend an afternoon at a karaoke bar, and slurp down steaming bowls of hand-pulled beef noodle soup.
For just a moment, it’s like stepping into another world. The Chinese supermarkets smell as they do everywhere in the world—the intermingled fragrance of star anise, dried chili peppers, and fresh prawns pierce the nose. Beijing-style roasted ducks hang in shop windows.
The integration of Chinese people with local Kenyan populations lies on a wide spectrum. Lu, the supermarket proprietor, is one of the older residents, having lived in the country since 1995. He initially came to Kenya to practice traditional Chinese medicine after an acquaintance suggested the idea of living in East Africa. To prepare for the move, Lu says he attended briefings organized by the Chinese government about cultural sensitivity and how they would serve as reflections of the Chinese in Kenya.
When he arrived, Lu was enthusiastic to try everything, from local dishes such as nyama choma (roast goat) and mchicha (sauteed greens) to learning about different customs. In this way, he counters a widely held stereotype in Africa that Chinese people are conservative and keep to themselves.
“Beijing is my hometown, but my life is here.”
After running his own Chinese medicine clinic for nearly a decade, he opened Feng Sheng. His customers range from Chinese expats to curious locals. He speaks conversational Kiswahili, Kenya’s national language, but communicates mostly in English with his Kikuyu wife, with whom he has two kids. All of the workers at his shop are locals. At night, he heads home and checks his children’s homework before putting them to bed.
“Beijing is my hometown,” Lu says, “but my life is here.”
Lu may be unique in his integration with the local community. Most Chinese people in Africa stick to the familiarity of Chinatowns, though some are bridging the cultural divide. About 10% of marriages on the continent were interracial in 2010, up from 6.7% in the 1990s. Requests for a certificate of no impediment—a document acquired by a Kenyan who wishes to marry outside the country—spiked by nearly 44% between 2017 and 2018.
Growth in economic activity has also helped bridge the cultural divide. A study by the Kenya-China Economic and Trade Association found that Chinese companies in Kenya created more than 50,000 jobs in 2018. Many of them were in the 100-plus transportation and communications construction projects around Kenya, some in partnership with local firms.
As for permanence, whether people decide to stay in Kenya indefinitely or return to China depends on the individual. Some see Kenya as a stepping stone to future opportunities, while others grow used to the pace of life and see no reason to leave.
Local attitudes on the ground toward the Chinese range from welcoming to resentful. Many Kenyans laud the efficiency and quality of finished construction projects such as Thika Road or the SGR railway connecting Nairobi to Mombasa, but there have also been complaints of mistreatment by Chinese bosses, as well as accusations of inexpensive Chinese goods crowding out Kenyan merchants.
Conflicts on the ground from cultural differences and economic friction have catalyzed questions about China’s role as a rising power and its increasing presence on the African continent. While there has been negative publicity, including unsubstantiated rumors that Chinese steal and eat dogs, there is also increasing openness and eagerness toward cultural exchange on the individual level.
Turn Up Travel, a Kenyan travel agency, organizes local food crawls, tours of Chinese-built buildings, and martial arts classes. Enrollment in Nairobi’s Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-funded language program, has been steadily climbing.
In the Upper Hill neighborhood popular with expats, one can find Greens Wood Grills & Lounge, arguably the city’s most authentic Sichuan food. In a side room, a group of friends and coworkers congregate together, drinking Tsingtao beer and chain-smoking cigarettes. Kids bound up and down the terraces, overjoyed to be socializing after an extended pandemic lockdown that lasted from March to June last year.
Joyce Bai and her husband, Tony, moved to Nairobi from Beijing nearly three years ago with their daughters Rebecca and Phoebe, aged 4 and 7. “We found a good work opportunity here for Tony and had been wanting to move to a new place to call our own,” Joyce says. “Kenya just happened to work out for us.”
While she admits that it hasn’t been easy to integrate with the local community—most Kenyans speak English, but this isn’t necessarily the case for Chinese emigrés—she feels relieved that her daughters have adapted to life here.
“Our daughters have the opportunity to learn about different cultures in a way that Tony and I never did.”
They attend an international school, though it remains closed due to the pandemic. They play with classmates of all backgrounds, though the Chinese parents tend to gravitate toward one another. The younger daughter takes martial arts lessons from a local Kenyan academy, while the older one practices piano at home and takes virtual lessons from a German teacher in town.
Although the couple says it has been emotionally difficult to be unable to visit China due to the pandemic, they remain thankful for their opportunities in Nairobi and plan to live here at least a decade longer, until their girls graduate from high school. The only real worry they have is the culture shock that their daughters might experience in China, should they choose to go back.
“Besides that, we aren’t worried about much else,” Joyce says. “Our daughters have the opportunity to learn about different cultures in a way that Tony and I never did.”