THE BLOG

East Meets East in Kenya

06/27/2013 07:58 EDT | Updated 08/27/2013 05:12 EDT

"We don't have a word for you," states my driver, as we inch forward in Nairobi traffic towards the notorious Eastlands.

"Your kind was not here before, so there was no need. But now, there are thousands of Chinese in Kenya. And so, we have invented muchina or muchingu from the Kiswahili word, muzungu."

Sheng, the street language threaded together from colonialist histories: British, Swahili and tribal tongues, now claims a new ethno-descriptor for its lexicon. The two monikers roll around in my mind, leaving traces of splitting figures.

Since 2006, when the residing Kenyan government signed an economic cooperative agreement with China and partnering Asia-Pacific countries, there has been a concurrent influx of 'yellow faces'.

The relatively new entrants are professionals and labourers contracted to bolster the two nations' budding alignment on various aspects of development. Most visible is the construction of infrastructure, such as buildings, energy sources and roads -- Thika Road being the model to replicate.

Indeed, en route to my meeting, we pass several worksites with Chinese and Kenyans in waist-high trenches and hunched over heaps of dirt stained a deep rust. Each person pantomiming a hand language codified by nonspeakers.

My driver points out the nearby temporary Chinese work camps that are home to the transplants for the duration of their time here. And I'm reminded of the multiple informal urban settlements imbedded in Nairobi's landscape. All sprung from similar circumstances and ended up claiming more than the government intended.

Cooperation may be the rhetoric of politicians, but one wonders how such handshakes and photo-op deals play out once they hit the ground.

It is said that Chinese workers look towards Africa with trepidation. A relocation is met with disquieted reluctance. Understandably so, since many have not experienced the world beyond their own hometown radius. Perhaps this is why the workers are purportedly to self-segregate, not venturing out of designated work zones and living quarters. This has fueled speculation from Kenyans that the workers are Chinese prisoners, forced to labour overseas for their freedom.

When pressed to voice an opinion about the Chinese presence, my driver expresses an exuberance liken to newly arrived partygoers.

"Before, the roads were terrible. Kenyan construction companies would take money and do nothing. Or, they would lay one thin layer of cement on top of the ground. So three months later, after rainy season, you get this..." He fans his arm incredulously across the dashboard at the cavernous potholes that open wide like jagged mouths waiting to swallow metal and rubber.

"The Chinese are building Kenya. So we welcome them."

To date the agreement has been symbiotic. However will there come a time when China is perceived as overreaching or 'stealing jobs'? Will there come a time when Kenyans start referring to Chinese as 'rough people' as they do of Koreans who settled here previously, dominating club and restaurant ownership?

The addition of a new Swahili word seems a prescient indicator in the grand scheme of globalized nation building, with the tagline 'to be continued'.