On Nairobi’s Ngong Road, Nothing is as it Seems

Try making judgements about human beings and groups and tribes and nations just by what you read in the media.

Then, go out into the streets.

Edward Njoge

Hire a bilingual  Uber/Littlecub/Taxify driver in Nairobi  to take you to Chinese-Kenyan construction sites, as I did. His name is Edward  Njogu  (the latter name in Kikuyu dialect means “elephant”) and he’s been in and out of the streets much of his life.  A few days ago, he scoped out Chinese construction sites and meeting places in advance of our morning appointment so I wouldn’t have to.  His English is flawless.  In another life, he could easily be a business negotiator or a diplomat.

I met Edward accidentally — another random call to Taxify for a ride to my college.  In the car Edward tells me about his wife who died in childbirth during a hospital strike, about the infant daughter that could have been saved, about the boss that collects 2500 Kenyan shillings (about US$24 a day)  just for the use of his car.   At first, I don’t know whether to trust him.  But then I hear about the hospital strike from Wambui, an assistant at my school.  Then Edward and I have a morning of first encounters with Chinese-Kenyan construction crews and managers in Nairobi that completely proves him out.  Instincts, story, observations.  The real deal.

He says of his life, despite the hardship and not enough money, “I love it!  I love it!”  because the people he meets while driving and the adventures he takes with random people like me are fascinating and  he has a purpose — sending his eight year old daughter to school.

“I was a street kid for three years when my Mum died in 1996,” he tells me.  “Then a friend gave me a job; I worked as a gardener and went back to school.” A lady took him in; he says she basically saved him, though he never felt comfortable living in her home.  But that same woman now takes care of his daughter Mary when Edward works, which is about 12 hours a day.  He shows me Mary’s photograph, a serious looking little girl in a school uniform.

In the car Edward, 34,  is teaching me Swahili.  He loves his nautical cap and US Army jacket, part of his identity as an expert guide.  I’ve learned just a few words from him so far…”naenda nyumbani”  (I’m going home), “Nimafika” (I’ve arrived), “Habari?” (how are you?) and “Mzuri Sana” (I’m fine).  Edward has a tremendous ear for languages (he pronounced my Chinese name, “Ai Su Shan,” the first time flawlessly.)  But it’s his finesse that surprises me. When we speak to a 24 year old Chinese sales manager at a luxury apartment site, she tells me one of my questions about her Kenyan associate’s salary (about $200 a month) is “inappropriate” because I ask if it’s enough to live on in Nairobi. Immediately Edward rejoins: “Dr. Emmett is only speaking of this woman and her livelihood, not the whole situation of [Chinese salaries] to Kenyans.”  Somehow this diffuses the tension and we agree to meet again for a longer conversation later.

On Ngong Road — a friendly reception

With young engineer Mr. Guan and crew

The men on the construction sites I visited are not what I was expecting, either.  I’ve heard that because of terrible publicity and Kenyan labor resistance, especially about working conditions in the giant state-owned infrastructure projects, that Chinese managers are reluctant to talk to any foreigner, even one like me (who speaks Mandarin).  Yet two young Chinese engineers I encounter, Mr. Guan, only 23 years old and a recent graduate of Qingdao Engineering School, and Mr. Cui, a 27 year old Luoyang University civil engineering graduate who wears a big floppy hat, welcome me with open arms.

We’re on a muddy construction site on Ngong Rd.,  a big east-west thoroughfare leading toward the suburban outpost, Karen.  Along the sides of the road Kenyan craftsmen and women display their wares –fancy carved furniture, commodes, iron gates, beds, dressers, outdoor play gyms for children — for every driver to see.

Both young men I meet openly reflect on their new experiences in Nairobi; they like it here — it’s a good job with a decent salary (higher than they could get in China, they tell me), and the company gives them a shared apartment and meals as part of the package (none of these perks are given to the Kenyans).  Both young men treat me like a surrogate Mom.  They’re patient with my rambling questions and take pictures with me.   And they seem equally at home and friendly with their Kenyan crew.   I watch the two Chinese guys sauntering along a still unpaved section of the new four lane highway site,  a 9.4 kilometer project run by their company,  Qing Jian International, a private Chinese construction firm.  No one — neither Kenyans nor Chinese — seem to be in a rush.

The Ngong Road project

The red clay highway is still unpaved; much of it is smoothed out (The clay  here resembles Carolina clay, very rich in iron oxide) .  The roads are already covered in tarp and held down with big rocks in anticipation of heavy rains later this month.  Guan held a cell phone, Cui didn’t seem to be doing any particular manual labor and he agreed to get into Edward’s car and talk to me along with Antony Macharia, a 29 year old trained Kenyan civil engineer now working here as a surveyor.

The Chinese men said they liked the Kenyans and enjoyed pretty  laid back relationships together.  They didn’t know too much about Kenyan salaries — only that they weren’t enough.  Yet I could see from the way the crews interacted and chatted that the relationships were easy, by and large.  I was surprised. There’s been so much reporting in local media here about the Chinese exploiting and even physically abusing Kenyan labor — complaints about rock bottom wages, forcing workers to lie onto the ground as punishment,  refusing to share food or toilets, sexually abusing some and denying all Kenyan transportation workers collective bargaining rights, especially in the large multibillion Chinese infrastructure projects like the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR),  that I didn’t know what to expect.

I spoke with laborers on the Ngong Rd. site who made little and

Long hours, little pay, but a job on a road crew.

security guards who made next to nothing ($80 a month working 7 days a week 6 am to 6 pm, guarding machinery).  One of the guards, Wesley, told me “We work here because we don’t have another option, but if another better job comes along, we’ll go for it.”  He said that as security guards, he and his friend are “typecast” by the Chinese who will not allow him to apply for better jobs on the Ngong Site requiring more construction skill.  No Kenyan is given medical care or even time to eat, they added.  ‘You eat standing up?” I asked.

Antony and Cui with me on the road. Antony is a Kenyan civil engineer and surveyor. He says, in general, Chinese wages for skilled Kenyan workers like him are “fair.”

Yes, that’s about it.  But some of the skilled Kenyan engineers, among them Antony Macharia, a 29 year surveyor and civil engineer from Kabete Technical, said he felt his 50,000 ksh (US$500) per month salary was fair. Reasonably so…enough to support himself and his young family.   “I’ve worked for several Chinese companies here.  The relations between the Chinese and Kenyans are generally good,” Antony said.  “When you work with young Chinese people, there’s a real advantage because they tend to be more relaxed and speak some English, while the older managers don’t have the language and can be more remote.”

Guan and Cui pointed out, regretfully, that sometimes the Kenyan wages were delayed in the pipeline — as much as 15 days at a time.  Was that because the company didn’t have enough money to pay promptly? I asked.  “Not really,” Guan replied.  The Chinese deposit wages to their own workers automatically through banks; the Kenyan workers are dispensed their wages onsite; when cash is short, people have to wait, but eventually the wages come.

I asked these guys why the Chinese enforced a hard 7 day workweek.  “It’s the rains,” Cui told me.  “When the rains come, they’ll turn everything to mud, and we won’t work for a month.”   Do the Chinese still get paid?  Yes of course.  Do the Kenyans?  No.  So the idea is to make money while you can.  “The current market in Kenya is completely dominated by Chinese companies,” Antony Macharia told me.   The jobs are with the Chinese.  Otherwise it would be despair.  So, even with inequities, it’s not all bad.   Eventually things might even get better.

It’s quite obvious the skilled Kenyans are doing reasonably well; the unskilled road workers are another story.  Our time just scratched the surface — I’ve already been to some local Chinese-Kenyan tea shops and markets– and the story is similar.  Kenyans and Chinese here on a local level, and for private contracting projects, especially, seem to work side by side harmoniously.   The inequality in wages and treatment will continue as long as there are too many unemployed in Kenya looking for precious jobs.

That 24 year old Chinese woman, Letty, a sales manager I spoke to at a residential  construction site not far from my flat in Kileleshwa, made an interesting observation.  “The  Kenyans complain about their wages, but in Kenya a lot of people aren’t working at all,” she said.  Her impression is that the Kenyan government doesn’t take care of its people.  “If the government really did care, the Kenyans’ employment and living standards would be better,” she concluded.  Letty says she wants to see improvement happen.    She’s even gone to bat for one her Kenyan saleswomen, Emily, to get a higher wage.

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Postscript: This was really my first encounter with Chinese-Kenyan construction workers and sales people.  There will be more; it’s part of my Fulbright research, and I had to record and photograph on site – with mixed results — standing up.  But overall, there’s an energy and a hopefulness I can’t ignore here.  Nairobi is striving; it’s fast, it’s busy and wants results.  Along Ngong Rd. I see that throng of furniture makers and play set makers and women selling fabrics and big water jugs working away  — that’s the old Nairobi — right beside  the Chinese-Kenyan city highway project in the throes of being built.

Special thanks to Edward Njogu — the skinny “elephant” who never forgets and helped me find these people, even holding his own tape recorder up to interview subjects when mine crapped out.  So much potential here.  Still not enough opportunity.

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