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America vs China: Who will have the last laugh in Kenya?

By XN Iraki | February 21st 2021

Nairobi Expressway.

The Nairobi Expressway is taking shape. A drive on Mombasa Road or Waiyaki Way shows. A keen observer will notice why it may take a shorter time to complete it than was originally planned.

The building materials are prefabricated and just “dropped” on the pillars.

The base of the pillars is also dug using a machine more like boreholes. There is a high level of automation, unlike in the past when road building was labour intensive. You rarely find a crowd at Chinese construction sites.

Beyond Thika Superhighway and the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the Nairobi Expressway will be the other lasting symbol of Chinese influence in Kenya. And Jubilee government.

On Waiyaki Way or its extension, Chiromo Road is another symbol of Chinese influence, the World Global Centre. It’s the tallest building in the city.

Interestingly, one advertised future tenant at Chinese build skyscraper is JW Marriott, an American-based chain of hotels.

The Westlands roundabout espouses the US-China silent jostling for influence in Kenya. Stand in the middle of the roundabout and face north.

On the right are rising pillars of the Expressway Way, on the left is Park Inn with Radisson written in smaller letters. Radisson is an American brand.

A curious observation is that as the Chinese invest in infrastructure, the Americans are investing in services. Crown Plaza, Radisson, Sheraton and Hilton are among the America brands that have come ashore as the Chinese build the roads, skyscrapers and SGR.

It seems as we complain over Chinese dominance in the infrastructure development and debts thereof, Americans and other investors are riding on that. The two leading economic powers have created unusual synergy in Kenya; by coincidence? Each seems to know its place.

One curious question is why building a superhighway from Nairobi to Mombasa by Bechtel, an American firm has not started. I would love to drive on an American build highway, then transfer to a Chinese build road in Nairobi. How about taking a Chinese build SGR and transferring it to a British built narrow gauge rail in Nairobi?

The upgrading of the infrastructure in Kenya shows the contest over the Kenyan mind and economic space among not just American and China but also among other nationalities.

Have you noted Kenyans have shifted to Turkey for medical services from India?

Noted the Brazilian steak? Noted the French supermarkets? Extend the list.

Let’s focus on the two leading economic and political powers and ask who will have the last laugh in Kenya?

It is very unlikely that China and the USA will openly contest the Kenyan economic space. Each has carved his space.

The Americans long won the contest for our minds through religion, music, movies and media led by CNN and other outlets. The election of Obama and the presence of African Americans in the US cemented this win. Add the language and our curriculum which has more American content than Chinese. A critical number of Kenyans have relatives in the US or have visited or studied there, which adds to the American myths, legends and mystics.

Most Kenyans who live in America rarely tell the whole story about what it means to live there, lest the myth is bust. Too few have visited, lived in China or have any connections.

Baby-names espouse the mental and emotional connection to the US. On this, it’s hard to differentiate British or American names. Most, I suggest or think the names are American from Ryan, Ethan, Jayden or Liam.

The girls’ names seem to defy that pattern but I am told cool names include Shantel, Shirleen, Briana, Claire, Clara, Michelle, Tamara, Timina and Arriana among others.

Internet sources show traditional girls names in the US are popular from Emma to Ava, Olivia and Isabella.

It seems the Chinese are taking the road less taken; the heavy infrastructure projects leaving the services to Americans. Noted that in trade, the US enjoys a healthy surplus in services?

I think the Chinese are aware of the American grip on our minds. Cumulatively, Western influence has been here for 125 years, since 1895 when Kenya became a British protectorate.

If you add the arrival of Christianity, it is even longer. Each country investing in Kenya seems to pick a sector to focus on. Japanese have the auto, South Africans wine, Egyptians fruits like grapes and oranges. Even our neighbours like Uganda and Tanzania have foodstuffs from onions to maize. Without a critical mass of Kenyans schooled in Chinese ways, American influence remains unchallenged for a long time to come.

It is unlikely that we shall watch Chinese TV, their movies, believe in their religions if any or relocate there through green cards. Will the Chinese win our minds through big infrastructure projects? We could ask if the Japanese did that through their auto and electronics.

 Economic models

The relationship seems to remain transactional without becoming emotional.

Beyond cars, we know almost nothing else about Japan.

Chinese are a bit ahead of Japanese with Confucius Institutes. But they can’t compete with the religion and cultural influence of Americans.

We are likely to live with this duality, facing East for economic models while facing the west for social, cultural and political models. Did our committee of experts who mid-wifed the 2010 constitution look at the Chinese constitution? What of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) committee?

In another 50 years, an authentic Kenyan model could emerge and end this duality. It will absorb thinking from the two great powers and cross-pollinate it with other nationalities and traditional wisdom.

A new, more confident Kenya could emerge, the dominant power in Eastern Africa. But let us be realistic, it’s also possible we could get an identity crisis, as different powers contest for our mind and soul.

Ever wondered why South American countries have never become the first world despite 200 years of independence from Spanish and Portuguese?

For now, let’s watch as new buildings and highways are built by the Chinese.

Are we aware that SGR and the newly Chinese built roads are part of a bigger picture - the Chinese one belt one road initiative (OBOR)?

Does the US have a counteroffer to OBOR in Kenya?

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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