Instead of fearing Chinese influence, learn from them

Kenya is blessed with natural resources. We are grateful for the abundance of limestone, gemstones, oil and gas deposits on our land. Nevertheless, one of our greatest resources is found within us, our intelligence and innovation. It is not for nothing that our start-up scene has been dubbed ‘Silicon Savannah.’ Kenya’s $1 billion tech hub is home to more than 200 startups, and has attracted giant international firms such as IBM, Intel and Microsoft.

These companies have nations to choose from around the world, but they put their faith in Kenyan acumen and intellect. However, there is another side to Kenya. It is the Kenya of superstitious and irrational belief. It is a Kenya that believes an owl is a bad omen, scratching the right hand will chase money away and that biting one’s tongue means someone is talking about them. Of course, these are pretty harmless and have equivalents in every society, but there are others more problematic.

A few years ago, a 13-year-old girl narrowly escaped death in Nakuru, after members of a church set her on fire “in a bid to exorcise demons”. More recently, a pastor in Mubwayo village, Bunyala sub-county, Busia County, shocked residents after he sold his property to avoid registering for what he describes as “satanic” Huduma Namba.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of superstitions in Kenya, and a new and powerful one is emerging that is going to be a great challenge. For years, the Chinese have become a people to heap upon all manner of prejudices. There is a belief sweeping some parts that to do business with the Chinese is akin to selling one’s soul to the devil. Most of the time, there is absolutely no factual evidence provided to proof the claims. This week, President Uhuru Kenyatta was in China to secure Sh368 billion funding for the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Naivasha to Kisumu. This agreement is so important to Kenya that opposition leader Raila Odinga who was also in Beijing, has given it unequivocal seal of approval.

Kenyatta knows the first phase of the SGR has already created over 50,000 jobs and boosted the country’s economy by 1.5 per cent. China is supporting Kenya’s industrial growth agenda through construction of special economic zones and industrial parks, and China-Kenya cooperation has expanded to cover education, culture and science and many Kenyans have benefited from China-sponsored scholarships.

The two countries relations are guided by a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership and Kenya has gained new markets for agricultural produce like coffee, tea, flowers as well as tourism products. Of course, there are many with a lot to lose with China’s growing influence. Many Western powers were happy with a China that kept to itself and didn’t challenge their hegemony on the world stage, but now the country has ‘come out’ and sought her own internationalist policy, through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Western money and largesse in Africa have largely come with strings attached, frequently neo-colonial in nature. With China it is purely a business deal. The black and white of the numbers are open for all to see and either they are good for a nation or not. In recent years, Kenyatta has signed significant deals with the Americans, Indians, European and African nations. However, the agreements with China appear to be the one’s many Kenyans are most suspicious about.

There is a place to have a balanced conversation about the merits of every deal. There is no place for rhetorical distortion of facts when it comes to deals with one nation. The lack of facts and evidence from critics of Kenya-China relations means it is fast becoming another illogical superstition that is spreading among us. Hopefully, the sane Kenya that built Silicon Savannah will prevail over the superstitious Kenya that still believes that Satan is hiding in every corner.

- The writer is a banker