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Archaeological evidence shows Kenya’s dalliance with Chinese dates 15th century

By Standard Reporter

Kenya: The Chinese are here and in a big way. They first came in trickles and now they are coming in droves.

They are in matatus, shopping malls and yes, you will find them at your favourite restaurant. 

Sociologists estimate the Chinese could conceivably outnumber Asians and Europeans as the second largest minority race in Kenya in the years to come.

They are gobbling up the real estate cake, are involved in commercial importation, warehousing, and small businesses. Should we be worried or excited? How did we get here?

A few years ago off the coast of Lamu, a group of fishermen made a startling discovery.  Their fishing nets accidentally caught 15th century Chinese vases. Months later, a joint team of Kenya and Chinese archaeologists found the 15th Century Chinese coin in Mambrui — a village north of Malindi.

Team leader Prof Qin Dashu from Peking University’s archaeology department read out the inscription from one of the coins: “Yongle Tongbao” — the name of the reign that minted the coin sometime between 1403 and 1424.

The coins it turned out were carried only by envoys of Emperor Chengzu, Prof Qin revealed.

Both discoveries point to one startling reality; that the relationship between Kenya and China did not start after the 1987 completion of the Kasarani Sports Complex but goes way back to 14th century.

The discovery posed the question that has both historians and politicians on the edge: How did a coin from the early 1400s get to East Africa, almost 100 years before the first Europeans reached the Indian Ocean shores?

Kenya’s relationship with China can now conclusively be traced to one man, Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho — a legendary Chinese admiral who, legends say, led a vast fleet of between 200 and 300 ships across the Indian Ocean in 1418.

Chinese descent

Until recently, revered folk tales and unsubstantial hints pointed to how far Zheng might have sailed. Besides, there may have been minor settlement of Chinese people in Kenya as early as the 15th century.

But modern major migration from the People’s Republic of China to Kenya dates to the late 1990s and early 2000s. Conservative estimates put the number of Chinese people in Kenya at 10,000.

Archaeologists have found Chinese porcelains made during the Tang dynasty (618–907) in Kenyan villages, presumably these are believed to have been brought over by Zheng during his 15th Century ocean voyages.

In Lamu Island, oral tradition maintains that 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors, possibly part of Zheng’s fleet, were washed up on the shore many years ago.

The legendary story carried by generations is that they were given permission to settle by local tribes after having killed a dangerous python. Later, they converted to Islam and married local women.

Now, they are believed to have only six descendants left. In 2002, DNA tests conducted on one of the women confirmed that she was of Chinese descent. Her daughter, Mwamaka Sharifu, later received a Chinese government scholarship to study traditional medicine in China.