Before last year, Richard Ochieng’, 26, could not recall experiencing racism firsthand.
Not while growing up as an orphan in his village near Lake Victoria where everybody was, like him, black. Not while studying at a university in another part of Kenya. Not until his job search led him to Ruiru, a fast-growing settlement at the edge of the capital, Nairobi, where Ochieng’ found work at a Chinese motorcycle company that had just expanded to Kenya.
But then his new boss, a Chinese man his own age, started calling him a monkey.
It happened when the two were on a sales trip and spotted a troop of baboons on the roadside, he said.
“‘Your brothers,'” he said his boss exclaimed, urging Ochieng’ to share some bananas with the primates.
And it happened again, he said, with his boss referring to all Kenyans as primates.
Humiliated and outraged, Ochieng’ decided to record one of his boss’ rants, catching him declaring that Kenyans were “like a monkey people.”
After his phone video circulated widely last month, Kenyan authorities swiftly deported the boss back to China. Instead of a tidy resolution, however, the episode has resonated with a growing anxiety in Kenya and set off a broader debate.
As the country embraces China’s expanding presence in the region, many Kenyans wonder whether the nation has unwittingly welcomed an influx of powerful foreigners who are shaping the country’s future — while also bringing racist attitudes with them.
It is a wrenching question for the nation, and one that many Kenyans, especially younger ones, did not expect to be confronting in the 21st century.
Kenya may have been a British colony, where white supremacy reigned and black people were forced to wear identification documents around their necks. But it has been an independent nation since 1963, with a sense of pride that it is among the region’s most stable democracies.
Today, many younger Kenyans say that racism is a phenomenon they largely know indirectly, through history lessons and foreign news. But episodes involving discriminatory behaviour by the region’s growing Chinese workforce have unsettled many Kenyans, particularly at a time when their government seeks closer ties with China.
“They are the ones with the capital, but as much as we want their money, we don’t want them to treat us like we are not human in our own country,” said David Kinyua, 30, who manages an industrial park in Ruiru that is home to several Chinese companies, including the motorcycle company where Ochieng’ works.
Over the last decade, China has lent money and erected infrastructure on a sweeping scale across Africa. To pay for such projects, many African nations have borrowed from China or relied on natural resources like oil reserves. And when tallying the cost, African nations have generally focused on their rising debts, or occasionally on the exploitative labour practices of some Chinese firms. Read more