Why all the fuss about the Chinese at Gikomba?

It was in the newspapers, TV, social media and street conversations - that the Chinese are selling mitumba at Gikomba, Nairobi’s famous second-hand clothes market that has defied time and fires.

A photo of two the Chinese men next to huge bales of clothes left our tongues wagging.  Why are we getting emotional about the Chinese at the market? Why not elsewhere?

Why not other nationalities? Why no complaint about the Chinese investors likes Erdemann and their real estate or Standard Gauge Railway and highways? Why all the Chinaphobia?  

Does it mean that hustling should be left to Kenyans? Does it mean making little money is our birthright?

Think about it: there are foreigners who own big firms in Kenya that make more money than the Chinese hustlers at Gikomba. How comes no one raises a finger?

Even when non-Kenyan chief executives lead blue chips firms, we are at home.

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The Japanese cars dominate Kenyan roads. We never complain about that.  South Africans are buying off our insurance firms and sell lots of wine.

We never complain. They also own a big chunk of Safaricom, 40 per cent. Americans are buildings hotels in Kenya and introducing fast foods? Why are we not complaining? 

Indians are in business in Kenya, controlling some sectors like steel. But we never complain. We can make the list longer?  You can contest this; if a Briton, an American or mzungu was selling mitumba at Gikomba we would make fun of it and go on with our lives.

I am sure other foreigners are at Gikomba. Why single out the Chinese?  Why are we so easy to excite in the age of reason?  Since the buildings of SGR, there has been hostility fanned by invisible forces against the Chinese in Kenya.

The narrative seems to scare Kenyans into believing that China will one day overwhelm us and possibly colonise us.

The narrative is gaining traction.  Are we imitating Americans and Huawei?

When they are not at Gikomba, it’s about the Chinese debt trap and how they took a port in Sri Lanka.  How much debt has the West given us since uhuru? How much debt do we owe multilateral lenders such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund (IMF)?

My fellow countrymen, I am not here to defend the Chinese, but common sense. How did the Chinese get to Gikomba?

Spawning Chinaphobia

We allowed them. And they will undercut the locals. By sourcing clothes or items directly from the factory, they shorten the supply chain and cut the costs. They easily remove the middle man.

It seems the Chinese rapid growth took the world by surprise spawning Chinaphobia.

Suppose the Chinese raised the price of the items we source from there? Could the Chinese be at Gikomba to study our buying habits?

Last year, I wrote a two-part series on the likely owners of Kenya by the year 2063. I predicted it will be lots of immigrants. I did not know the ownership was coming so soon.

We are too obsessed with petty issues to defend our economic interests. Either NASA is fighting Jubilee (before handshake) or governors against the State.

Tribal sentiments are whipped at will. Economic issues take backstage. Noted how much publicity pastor James Ng’ang’ a of Neno Evangelism got?

Anglo-Saxon Protestants

And Sonko - Passaris tiff? How much energy we have put on gender issues?

We love emotional issues including beauty contests.

Outsiders see our preoccupations and weakness and are adept at exploiting them. Let us be blunt, the 2010 constitution made sure that Kenya has no “core owners” like Western Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the USA or royal family in the UK. Kenya is now free for all.

While foreigners can’t vote they have all the economic freedom in Kenya, often getting priority as investors.

Do you recall some governors promising free land to investors? Would I get that land myself? In the last 56 years, the citizens of Kenya have been subdued into total submission, starting with Mau Mau to multipartyism then tribal and post-election violence.

Emotional violence has subdued us farther with key opinion leaders from teachers, to parents, preachers, and politicians conveying pessimism to the next generation. We have no time for optimism. Anyone given a platform only shows how bad things are.

WhatsApp groups have joined the bandwagon of pessimism. Even our education system is longer a purveyor of optimism.

Subdued mentally and feeling helpless, we are easy prey for faceless capitalists. Did you notice that as we got emotional about the Chinese at Gikomba, the Congolese, Burundians and other foreigners have made Kitengela their home?  

Kenya it seems is a no man’s land. We are even debating if a dual citizen can become an ambassador!Let us not single out the Chinese. We are a welcoming nation, let us embrace all our visitors without discrimination. Diversity is good for economic dynamism.

 If we can’t defend our economic interests, others will. Have you noted the amount of foreign investment that poured into this country as NASA and Jubilee fought?

And before all the fuss about the Chinese at Gikomba, how many Kenyans freely hustle abroad? And why should we be importing mitumba?

Where are our textile factories? And why not leave the Chinese with Mitumba as we move up the value chain?

We are worried about the Chinese taking over our businesses? I could boldly suggest by 2063 or earlier our president could be of the Chinese, Indian, British or Somali extraction.

After all, economic and political power often go together. Political power in Kenya will shift in whimpers, not bangs to quote poet TS Eliot. 

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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