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The Chinese Babies of Mathare and Other Love Stories

11 min read.

Large China-funded infrastructure projects in Kenya have led to an influx of Chinese male migrants, who have not just changed the landscape of the country, but who have also found love – and had children – in the most unlikely places. DAUTI KAHURA reports on the “Chikuyu” phenomenon.



The Chinese Babies of Mathare and Other Love Stories
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In the sprawling congested tenements of Kiamaiko, just behind Jonsaga area in Huruma, Nyawira (not her real name) used to be the gossip of her flatmates for the longest time. She was married to a Chinese man who had come to the country as a road construction worker in the mid-2000.

“I used to sell edibles to the Chinese workers, who had begun constructing Thika Road and that’s how we met,” said Nyawira somewhat nostalgically, remembering those days that she daily interacted with the Chinese. “It was my first time to meet with the Chinese people – they spoke neither English nor Kiswahili and I didn’t speak their language Mandarin. But they needed to eat and I needed to sell food. It is the story of how human beings can overcome imagined obstacles in order to relate.”

By the time the Thika superhighway was nearing completion, Nyawira and her Chinese friend were an item. They had even moved together in Kiamaiko and today their 12-year-old son is a testament to that liaison.

But the romance did not last long. “A couple of years back, he told me he had to head back home for some urgent matter I have not seen him since,” explained Nyawira.

In Nyawira’s neighbourhood, there are two Chinese men who share a one-bedroomed house. “The two men are my water clients,” said Zangi, one of the water vendors that supply water in 20-litre jerricans to Kiamaiko’s residents. “These Chinese have adapted to the local situation, they are just like our people.”

At Eastlands Hotel on Ring Road Kilimani, a wholly Chinese-owned deluxe hotel for Chinese tourists who cannot afford to stay at the city’s high-end hotels, I met Wamaitha (not her real name), an ordinarily very talkative and outgoing person, but only when her Chinese husband is not around. A consummate businesswoman, she met her Chinese mate at a business convention. She is in her early 30s, and her tummy is already showing a noticeable bump – a telltale sign that soon she will be expecting a baby. “My husband is also a businessman, dealing in precious stones,” said Wamaitha, who is from Kerugoya in Kirinyaga County.

To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video (the couple says they don’t know who did it) that went viral. Ngunjiri said her wedding to a Chinese man really excited Kenyans for reasons she cannot quite fathom.

Nyawira’s and Wamaitha’s inter-racial relationship stories with the Chinese is the story of diversity of the Chinese people who come to Kenya: from the construction worker to the polished entrepreneur, the Chinese migrants in the country have been causing socio-cultural ripples with their unparalleled quick adaptability to the local environment. “In the next 50 years in Kenya, the Chinese people are going to integrate into the Kenyan society in ways that can only be unimaginable today,” said Christom Karimi, a Kenya-Chinese cultural expert, who speaks perfect Mandarin.

To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video that went viral.

Inter-racial families in Kenya have never been a big deal; they are prevalent, especially among white men and indigenous Kenyan women. The white folk in Kenya has been around for long, and their liberal Western culture, English language, Christian religion and general demeanour have made it easier for Kenyan girls to easily gel with them. Not so with the Chinese, whose Oriental culture, language and even religion and their “peculiar” culinary habits have been alien to Kenyans. Chinese people eat dogs, cats and even frogs. These cuisine recipes would test the taste buds of even the strongest Kenyans, who are otherwise known to enjoy international menus.

Early this year, at Diamond estate in South B, Nairobi, a German shepherd went missing. A notice was plastered on the main gate to the estate. After a couple of days, when the garbage collectors came to pick the trash, they found the dog’s head in one of the dustbins. A security meeting was called and the people confronted one of the Chinese estate residents. He owned up to rounding up the canine and agreed to pay a fine of Sh35,000.

Usually, when a local girl gets married to a white man in Kenya, she is whisked off to a posh suburban area: these girls believe they have crossed the Rubicon; it is a mark of upward mobility and privileged social status. Not so with the inter-racial Chinese marriages between Chinese men and Kenyan women; like Nyawira, many end up living in shanty towns.

Where it all began

In 2009, three Chinese companies were contracted by the Kenyan government to build the Nairobi-Thika superhighway. These companies imported Chinese migrant labour who did the actual road construction. The Chinese workers lived in makeshift tin shacks with makeshift mobile toilets in a compound that was sealed from the rest of the Kenyans. The biggest construction site was at the huge Globe Cinema roundabout, where the construction of the 50 km superhighway began. The roundabout is just 500 metres from Nairobi’s central business district (CBD).

The Chinese workers were under strict instructions from the companies’ general managers not to meander into the CBD. So the only meaningful interactions the Chinese workers had with Kenyans was during tea and lunch breaks. At tea break, they would be served African tea and mandazi (a doughnut-like delicacy). For lunch, they were served local cuisine. The food usually included, ugali, githeri, chapati and broth made of turtle beans and green grams. Many of the girls and women who sold food at the site were from Mathare Valley, a large informal settlement that borders the Thika superhighway – the language barrier notwithstanding.

Five years later, in 2012, when the $360-million road was opened by President Mwai Kibaki, the Chinese migrant labour had not only completed the road and overpass bridges, they had also invested in creating inroads and building bridges among the local female populace. Referred to as chinku – the ghetto slang name for the Chinese, the Chinese quickly learned the local lingua franca Sheng, the colloquial language spoken in shanty towns across Nairobi.

Today, the Chinese have not only married local girls and become assimilated into Kenyan life, they have also ventured into informal businesses, a preserve of Nairobi’s rank and file that lives in Eastlands, the poorer part of the city. The resilience of the Chinese came to light when they started trading at Gikomba Market, the largest second-hand clothes market in East and Central Africa. Gikomba Market, a stone’s throw away from Mathare Valley, is a bedlam of activities: you would have to be made of tough metal to conduct business there.

Not all the local women were as lucky as Nyawira and Wamaitha to be in steady relationships, Nyawira’s hubby later disappearance notwithstanding. There are many the tale of Chinese men who have sowed seeds wherever they worked and moved on, either back to China, or relocated to other working sites.

In Mathare 4B, Njeri was not as lucky: she was abandoned by her Chinese mate even after having two children with him. She was also serving food to the Chinese on Thika superhighway. Her two boys are now big – one is about 8 years old, while the other is 10.

Mathare Valley is a hellish place. Reminiscent of the favelas of Port Alegre and Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, life in the slum is short, nasty and brutish. Among the children hopping over the open flowing sewers and mounds of garbage strewn all over are Njeri’s children, who have continually drawn attention from fellow children, not so much because of their fairer skin complexion, but more fundamentally, because of the shape of their eyes.

Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese. When she was asked to explain the anomaly, she owned up to having an affair with a Chinese construction worker. The Gitaru–Wangige Road is currently under construction by the Chinese. Local folklore has it that when she was asked to identify the man, even after they were paraded for identification, she could not pick him. The joke going around is that all Chinese men look alike.

Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese.

This is the same joke-story that Purity told me in Mwihoko, Githurai. Purity was a food seller at the Githurai roundabout during the road construction. Over time she befriended a Chinese man. When he impregnated her, he disappeared. “Ï went looking for him, among his colleagues, I couldn’t find him. That was 10 years ago, because that is how old her daughter is,” she said.

The Chinese invasion

The Chinese have not only been marrying local girls, impregnating the ones they could, and engaging in retail business, they have also, surprisingly, been attending church – mostly evangelical churches – and have even started local branches of international churches. To most Kenyans, the Chinese people are not known to worship the Christian God, much less worship God at all. This view traces its origin to the Chinese history as a majority of Kenyans understand it: that China has always been a communist country that has no place for God or religious activities.

Emboldened by the warm reception of a Christianised population, where 80 per cent of the country, nominally or otherwise, belongs to the various Christian denominations, the Chinese migrants are starting evangelical type churches even in rural Kenya. At Gambogi, a trading centre on the Kakamega-Kisumu Road, the Chinese construction workers who are building the 60km road between the two towns have colonised the Gambogi PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) Church, situated just beside the road. Gambogi PAG Church, which has meetings in rented premises, has now added the name China to its church label to read China Gambogi PAG Church.

Today, there are three main Chinese churches in Nairobi, all run by pastors from abroad. The pastors, mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, are plying their trade in posh suburban areas in Nairobi. The Bread of Life Church, which is the better known of the Chinese churches, meets in a tall office block and caters mostly to employees of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), CGTN, the Chinese government broadcasting media house, and the business community.

Even though many of the migrant Chinese in Kenya are of evangelical persuasion, not all of them attend such churches. It is 4.00 pm at the Jehova Witness Kingdom Hall on Elgeyo Marakwet Road where the faithful meet every Sunday. A special service is going in Mandarin. Here, a group of Chinese Jehova Witness followers meet to fulfil their religious obligations. The meeting, incidentally, is not exclusively for the Chinese; there are Kenyans there, who by the virtue of attending these meetings, have learnt Mandarin.

The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani. Many of their social-economic activities are centred around this area. At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs. At Park 53 building on Ring Road, 90 per cent of the businesses, mostly restaurants, are owned by the Chinese. Because many of them do not speak the local lingua franca, English and Kiswahili, they tend to huddle together, hence live communally in the same area.

Amid all these Chinese activities in the country, their seemingly unchecked influx has apparently been causing disquiet among Kenyans, especially among small traders and the business community, who engage in the importation of merchandise. Kenyans tend not to be xenophobic, but the Chinese community is quietly and slowly eliciting xenophobic rhetoric among Kenyans.

The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani…At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs.

Several weeks ago, the MP for Starehe constituency, Charles Njagua, stoked xenophobic fears when he accused foreigners, who obviously included the Chinese, of monopolising all the businesses that “belong” to Kenyans. In his inciteful remarks, the MP said if the government did not take any “stern measures” against the foreigners, he would lead the people in ferreting out the foreigners out of the country. The MP has since recanted his statement, arguing that he was quoted out of context. But the point had already been made.

Traders on Gaberone Lane, the 100m backstreet alleyway behind Gaberone Road in downtown Nairobi supported and loudly voiced the xenophobic rhetoric against the Chinese. It is not difficult to see why. They all deal mainly in fabric and textiles materials, all imported from China. “Since the Chinese entered into this business, our businesses have gone down, they have been doing everything to undercut us by their price differentiation” said Ken Mutahi, who has been importing fabrics from China for the last 15 years.

“The Chinese have the unparalleled advantage of buying the materials directly from the factories, in their own country, while we buy from retailers. It has become increasingly impossible to compete with them, because all they need to do is lower their prices a little bit and they will still be within their profit margin,” complained Mutahi. He said that the traders were furious with the government for allowing the Chinese to “invade” their businesses. “Which government allows foreigners to overrun businesses meant for the locals?”

At Gikomba Market, anger has been building up against the Chinese traders, who have taken the second-hand clothes business by storm. “Chinese are now some of the biggest middle men, involved in selling thousands of bales of clothes,” said Elvis Kariuki, himself a trader at the market since the early 1990s. “We have been asking ourselves what kind of work permit these Chinese are on that allows them to engage in such businesses,” said Kariuki. Seemingly better organised and with a lot more capital than the local traders, the Chinese have been buying huge stocks of second-hand clothes mainly imported from the United Kingdom and filling all the warehouses in Gikomba.

“Expatriates who come to the country should be bringing in [new] knowledge and skills that maybe scarce or non-existent – why does the government allow the Chinese to come and take our jobs?” posed Kariuki. The trader said many of the Gikomba Market traders who have never known or done any other work, other than selling second-hand clothes, are very bitter with both the government and the Chinese traders.

The Chinese have not only infiltrated the second-hand clothes market, they are also involved in importing – from their own country – merchandise that was the sole preserve of the small traders. In downtown Nairobi, Chinese traders are running shops and renting stores which they stock with stuff imported from China. These items include cheap feature mobile phone handsets, their spare parts and hi-fi equipment such as hoofers.

“Some of the Chinese traders doing business in Kenya have been contracted by local companies back at home,” said a Kenyan trader who has been in the business of importing the same stuff. “The Chinese traders then become the conduits for creating new markets for the products manufactured back in China.”

The Chinese traders, on the other hand, have a different view of themselves. Some of the Chinese traders I spoke to said that they were not taking away anybody’s job or business – all they were doing was engaging in market competition. “We just happen to be aggressive and versatile,” some of one Chinese trader.

Forty-year-old Alex Cao (pronounced Chao), originally from Tianjin, came to Kenya seven years ago. He said he found his niche in real estate development. “It is never a smooth sail,” said Cao. “Dexterity is the name of the game if you have to survive the market onslaught.”

Richard Ling, 30, hails from Guangzhou and has been in Kenya for only three years. A trader, he hawks merchandise, including mobile phone gadgets, chargers, power banks, and torches, from his small rented stall at Kamukunji market building in downtown Nairobi.

Sixty-year-old Ling Fang came to Kenya 20 years ago. His wife joined him 10 year later. They found success in selling and stocking drapery and other upholstery materials, which they import in bulk from their country. From their shop on Biashara Street, they have engaged in both retail and wholesale business.

The dexterity of the Chinese in Kenya has seen them diversify in all manner of businesses. At the Eastmart supermarket on Tom Mboya Street, one of the upcoming suppliers of confectioneries is a Chinese man who makes doughnuts, shortcakes and cupcakes. “Every morning by 8.00 am, the Chinese man will deliver his goods without fail,” said the supermarket attendant who is in charge of the bread and cakes section. “His prices are between Sh10 and Sh20 cheaper and his cakes are slightly bigger, so they move faster.”

At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.

“The Chinese who are always looking for favourable places to do business have recently been migrating to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian economy is growing at a steady pace, the government has reduced much of the red tape associated with starting businesses for foreigners and their tax regime is not as punishing,” Karimi said.

At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.

By 2017, China had become Kenya largest trading partner. In 2017, it built a new railway line, at the cost of $3.18 billion, the most expensive infrastructure expenditure in Kenya since independence.

Two years ago, perhaps in an effort to endear themselves to Kenyans, a Chinese philanthropic group started a feeding programme in eight informal primary schools in Mathare 4A. The biggest of these schools, Chang Rong – which translates as Mathare Light Centre – is the biggest, with 400 pupils. Collins Abongo, a teacher at the school, told me the Chinese also sponsor a football tournament among the eight schools.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.


Being Black in Argentina

What does Javier Milei’s presidential victory mean for Argentina’s black and indigenous minorities?



Being Black in Argentina
Photo: Argentinian President Elect Javier Milei. Image credit Mídia NINJA CC BY 4.0 Deed.
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On November 19, Javier Milei secured the presidency of the Republic of Argentina with 56% of the vote. However, his victory is expected to significantly impact a specific segment of the country.

During my six-month exchange in Argentina’s Venado Tuerto (pop. 75,000) in 2016, I encountered someone of shared Black ethnicity on the street only once. A person whom many locals incidentally mistook for me—along with a Cuban Black girl, the only black person like me in the whole high school. As insignificant as a census of this small city’s population may seem, it effectively illustrates a sobering reality: the presence of Black people in Argentina is sparse, and their numbers have dwindled over time.

Hay más por otros lados, acá no llegaron” (There are more of them elsewhere, they have not arrived here) is a rhetoric prevalent among many Argentines, but the reality is quite dissimilar. Contacts between Argentina and Black people, particularly of African descent, date back to the 16th century transatlantic slave trade, when West and Central Africa people were brought by Spanish and Portuguese settlers to the coastal city of Buenos Aires, only to be sold and moved mostly within the Río de la Plata, present-day Argentina and Uruguay. In “Hiding in Plain Sight, Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic,” Erika Denise Edwards reports that between 1587 and 1640 approximately 45,000 African slaves disembarked in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 18th century, one-third of Argentina’s population was Black.

What, then, became of the Black African population in Argentina? Some attribute their decline to historical factors such as their active involvement in conflicts including the War of Independence against Spanish colonists (1810-1819) and the war with Paraguay (1865-1870), in which Black men often found themselves on the front lines, enduring the brunt of the attacks, or even choosing to desert and flee the country. These factors intersect with a gradual process of miscegenation and interracial mixing, leading to a progressive whitening of the population—both in terms of physical attributes and ideology.

Adding to this complex mix, political rhetoric comes into play. Influential Argentine leaders, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the 19th century, idealized white Europe not only as a model for overcoming the country’s socio-economic challenges but also as a narrative that implied the absence of Black people in Argentina, thereby erasing an integral part of the nation’s history.

Doing so has shrewdly allowed a country to avoid reckoning with its past of slavery and navigate the complexities of its presence, using the escamotage that there are no race-related issues in the country because there are no Black people. This assertion is incorrect for several reasons beyond those mentioned above. First, despite being imperceptible to the naked eye, there is a small but existing population of Afro-descendants in Argentina. Nevertheless, in my second stay in Argentina, this time in Buenos Aires, it became more apparent to me how a certain nationalistic current, in the footsteps of Sarmiento, proudly makes itself of this consistent lack of Black heritage. Comparing itself favorably to neighboring countries, this current boasts a notion of white supremacy in Argentina, which celebrates the Italian immigration from the 19th and 20th centuries as the foundation of national identity, while largely overlooking the historical legacy of African bodies that predates it.

As a result, even in a cosmopolitan capital city such as Buenos Aires, a significant portion of the white Argentine population based its identity on my opposite—not knowing that as an Afro-Italian, my Italian citizenship actually made them closer to my blackness and African roots than they wanted. Asserting that there are no racial concerns in Argentina is misleading. It amounts to the invisibilization of racial discrimination in a country where those who deviate from the preferred prototype, including Indigenous communities such as Mapuche, Quechua, Wichi, and Guarani, experience limited access to education and social services, and are disproportionately prone to experience poverty than their white counterparts.

Even within everyday discourse in Argentina, the assertion is refuted: many are labeled Black despite not matching the physical appearance associated with the term. The expression “es un negro” might refer to everyone who has darker skin tones, grouping them into a specific social category. However, beyond a mere description of physical attributes, “es un negro” delineates a person situated at various margins and lower rungs of society, whether for economic or social reasons. The appellation is also ordinarily used in jest as a nickname for a person who, of “black phenotype,” has nothing. The label “morocho” seems to be the most appropriate appellation for dark-skinned people in the country.

Argentine white supremacist identity is often matched by a certain right-wing political ideology that is classist, macho and, to make no bones about it, xenophobic. In the 2023 elections, such a systemic structure takes on the face of Javier Milei. The Argentine’s Donald Trump claimed in 2022 at the presentation of his book that he did not want to apologize for “being a white, blonde [questionable element], blue-eyed man.” With false modesty, the demagogue took on the burden of what it means in the country to have his hallmarks: privilege, status, and power.

Milei’s need for apologies should not revolve around his connotations but rather the proposals presented during his election campaign and outlined in his political program, which include the dollarization of pesos and the removal of government subsidies. Besides assessing if these actions would really benefit the vulnerable economy of the country, it’s worth questioning why it’s the middle-class, often white population that stands to suffer the least from such policies. They can afford to transact in dollars, weather an initial depreciation of their income, and provide for their children’s education without relying on government subsidies. In essence, they can do without the limited benefits offered by the Argentine state, given their already privileged positions.

The election of this politician not only adversely affects Black minorities, but also targets apparent minorities whom this divisive ideology seeks to erase, including Indigenous populations and the poorest segment of society—the current Argentinian “blacks”—who significantly enrich the Argentine populace. In such a scenario, one can only hope that the world will strive for a more consistent record of their existence.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC

The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.



Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
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The East African Community (EAC), whose goal is to achieve economic and political federation, brings together three former British colonies – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – and newer members Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Somalia first applied to join the EAC in 2012 but with fighting still ongoing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, joining the bloc was impossible at the time. Eleven years later, joining the bloc would consolidate the significant progress in governance and security and, therefore, Somalia should be admitted into the EAC without undue delay. This is for several reasons.

First, Somalia’s admission would be built on an existing foundation of goodwill that the current leadership of Somalia and EAC partner states have enjoyed in the recent past. It is on the basis of this friendship that EAC states continue to play host to Somali nationals who have been forced to leave their country due to the insecurity resulting from the prolonged conflict. In addition, not only does Somalia share a border with Kenya, but it also has strong historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural links with all the other EAC partner states in one way or another.

Dr Hassan Khannenje of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies said: ”Somalia is a natural member of the EAC and should have been part of it long ago.”

A scrutiny of all the EAC member states will show that there is a thriving entrepreneurial Somali diaspora population in all their economies.  If indeed the EAC is keen to realise its idea of the bloc being a people-centred community as opposed to being a club of elites, then a look at the spread of Somali diaspora investment in the region would be a start. With an immense entrepreneurial diaspora, Somalia’s admission will increase trading opportunities in the region.

Second, Somalia’s 3,000 km of coastline (the longest in Africa) will give the partner states access to the Indian Ocean corridor to the Gulf of Aden. The governments of the EAC partner states consider the Indian Ocean to be a key strategic and economic theatre for their regional economic interests. Therefore, a secure and stable Somali coastline is central to the region’s maritime trade opportunities.

Despite possessing such a vast maritime resource, the continued insecurity in Somalia has limited the benefits that could accrue from it. The problem of piracy is one example that shows that continued lawlessness along the Somali coast presents a huge risk for all the states that rely on it in the region.

The importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean has seen Kenya and Somalia square it out at the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute.

Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group said that ”Somalia joining the EAC then might present an opportunity to discuss deeper cooperation frameworks within the bloc, including around the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute. The environment was not as conducive to collaboration before, and perhaps it explains why the ICJ came in. Integrating into the EAC potentially offers an opportunity to de-escalate any remaining tensions and in turn, focus on developing mechanisms that can be beneficial for the region.”

Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist in the region, said: “The East African states along the East African coast are looking for opportunities to play a greater role in the maritime security to the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Somalia joining the EAC bloc will allow them to have a greater say.”

Third, Somalia’s membership of the Arab League means that there is a strong geopolitical interest from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, Somalia stands to gain more in the long-term by joining the EAC rather than being under the control of the Gulf states and, to a large extent, Turkey. This is because, historically, competing interests among the Gulf states have contributed to the further balkanisation of Somalia by some members supporting breakaway regions.

On the other hand, the EAC offers a safer option that will respect Somalia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, EAC partner states have stood in solidarity with Somalia during the difficult times of the civil conflict, unlike the Gulf states. The majority of the troop-contributing countries for the African Union Mission to Somalia came from the EAC partner states of Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. Despite having a strategic interest in Somalia, none of the Gulf states contributed troops to the mission. Therefore, with the expected drawdown of the ATMIS force in Somalia, the burden could fall on the EAC to fill in the vacuum. Building on the experience of deploying in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is highly likely that it could be called upon to do the same in Somalia when ATMIS exits by 2024.

The presence of the Al Shabaab group in Somalia is an albatross around its neck such that the country cannot be admitted into the EAC without factoring in the risks posed by the group.

According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the government of Somalia must move to consolidate these gains – especially in central Somalia – as it continues with its offensive in other regions. However, Somalia may not prevail over the Al Shabaab on its own; it may require a regional effort and perhaps this is the rationale some policymakers within the EAC have envisioned. If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.

Somalia’s admission comes with risks too. Kenya and Uganda have in the past experienced attacks perpetrated by Al Shabaab and, therefore, opening up their borders to Somalia is seen as a huge risk for these countries. The spillover effect of the group’s activities creates a lot of discomfort among EAC citizens, in particular those who believe that the region remains vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks.

If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.

The EAC Treaty criteria under which a new member state may be admitted into the community include – but are not limited to – observance and practice of the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. Critics believe that Somalia fulfils only one key requirement to be admitted to the bloc – sharing a border with an EAC partner state, namely, Kenya. On paper, it seems to be the least prepared when it comes to fulfilling the other requirements. The security situation remains fragile and the economy cannot support the annual payment obligations to the community.

According to the Fragility State Index, Somalia is ranked as one of the poorest among the 179 countries assessed. Among the key pending issues is the continued insecurity situation caused by decades of civil war and violent extremism. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch ranks Somalia low on human rights and justice – a breakdown of government institutions has rendered them ineffective in upholding the human rights of its citizens.

Somalia’s citizens have faced various forms of discrimination due to activities beyond their control back in their country. This has led to increasingly negative and suspicious attitudes towards Somalis and social media reactions to the possibility of Somalia joining the EAC have seen a spike in hostility towards citizens of Somalia. The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.

Dr Nicodemus Minde, an academic on peace and security, agrees that indeed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes will shape their behaviour towards Somalia’s integration. He argues that ”the admission of Somalia is a rushed process because it does not address the continued suspicion and negative perception among the EAC citizens towards the Somali people. Many citizens cite the admission of fragile states like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a gateway of instability to an already unstable region”.

Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the EAC has been how to involve the citizens in their activities and agenda. To address this challenge, Dr Minde says that ’’the EAC needs to conduct a lot of sensitisation around the importance of integration because to a large extent many EAC citizens have no clue on what regional integration is all about”. The idea of the EAC being a people-centred organisation as envisioned in the Treaty has not been actualised. The integration process remains very elitist as it is the heads of state that determine and set the agenda.

The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.

Dr Khannenje offers a counter-narrative, arguing that public perception is not a major point of divergence since “as the economies integrate deeper, some of these issues will become easy to solve”. There are also those who believe that the reality within the EAC is that every member state has issues with one or the other partner state and, therefore, Somalia will be in perfect company.

A report by the Economic Policy Research Centre outlines the various avenues through which both the EAC and Somalia can benefit from the integration process and observes that there is therefore a need to fast-track the process because the benefits far outweigh the risks.

EAC integration is built around the spirit of good neighbourliness. It is against this backdrop that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has extended the goodwill to join the EAC and therefore, it should not be vilified and condemned, but rather embraced.  As Onyango Obbo has observed, Somalia is not joining the EAC – Somalia is already part of the EAC and does not need any formal welcoming.

Many critics have argued that the EAC has not learnt from the previous rush to admit conflict-plagued South Sudan and the DRC. However, the reality is that Somalia will not be in conflict forever; at some point, there will be tranquillity and peace. Furthermore, a keen look at the history of the EAC member states shows that a number of them have experienced cycles of conflict in the past.

Somalia is, therefore, not unique. Internal contradictions and conflict are some of the key features that Somalia shares with most of the EAC member states. The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should, therefore, be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.

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The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya

Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.



The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Photo: Image courtesy of Kenyans4Palestine © 2023.
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Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.

When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.

Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.

When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.

Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.

Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.

Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.

Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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