The Great Nairobi-Chinese Railway Bazaar

Entering first class privileges on the new Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railroad to Mombasa. Practically no Chinese can be seen anywhere.

A few weeks have passed.  After awhile the string of conversations and interviews begins to blur. The faces don’t, exactly, but the impressions they make are something like Georges Seurat’s paintings. Pointillistic — dots of red, yellow, blue,  white, and black.  Assembled close up, each fleck means too little. Taken from afar, the whole is an appealing approximation of the truth.

But not the whole truth.  Truth takes longer to coalesce in the brain, if it ever does.  I write this with a sense that my knowledge is incomplete.  Still…

In Kenya, I travel all the time in Ubers and trains.    I meet journalists, Chinese architects, solar panel salesmen and tea shop owners, Kenyan wildlife enforcement officers, security guys, cleaning ladies, executive directors of the National Construction Authority and taxi drivers who tell me their life story in about 15 minutes.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, a friend of China

Some of the stories are tragic, some are baloney or, at least, artfully enhanced to elicit sympathy and an extra tip.  No one has enough money in Nairobi. Business on the streets has been down since the highly contested election of President Uhuru Kenyatta, an evident China acolyte whose somewhat lousy reception in Western media over a contested election in 2017  sent him scurrying to China’s president Xi Jin Ping for more spectacular road, railway, and port infrastructure projects.

Many of these projects have been heralded as part of Kenya’s quantum leap to economic prosperity and more jobs for the country. The downside is worrisome:  China now owns more than 70% of Kenya’s bilateral debt.  Kenya owes 722 billion Kenyan shillings [Ksh], roughly US$7.15 billion, an increase of more than 52% in the last year alone.  The country’s public debt load has surpassed 5 trillion Kenyan shillings ($50 billion), raising doubts about how the government will pay back the money and prove its borrowing binge can promote economic transformation and citizen well-being  in the long term.

At SGR in Nairobi.

One of the biggest infrastructure projects is the year-old Chinese-Kenyan built Standard Gauge Railroad (SGR), the slickly built rail line for passenger and freight service running from Nairobi south through Tsavo national wilderness to Mombasa on the Indian Ocean.  The Kenya Investment Authority general manager I spoke with, Mr. Pius Rotich, proudly produced a document showing that Phase 1 of SGR has already created 46,000 local jobs, cut transportation costs by 40% and increased Kenya’s GDP by 1.5%.

At the same time, some Kenyan railroad workers have complained bitterly, first on social media, then to union and government authorities, about Chinese mistreatment on the line. Complaints range from physical abuse and menial job assignment and salary (about a quarter of comparable Chinese salaries for the same job) to denial of Kenyan locomotive engineers’ rights or abilities to drive the train.  Some of these issues may have cultural and language roots that could, potentially, be resolved (I will discuss this issue in a future post).  But just as worrisome, wildlife activists have released photos of scrawny lions and buffalo decapitated by the high-speed SGR as it snakes through Tsavo national park. 

SGR in Mombasa. High efficiency, disgruntled Kenyan labor.

“The train has changed and narrowed the wildlife migration patterns,” Athman Ibrahim, a Kenyan Wildlife Service investigator told me as we rode the SGR together in early October.  The animals apparently become disoriented by train and construction noise; even elevated trestles disrupt herd movements and produce a “penned in” effect.  The population of animals in the parks, sadly, decreases every year, Ibrahim told me.  Meanwhile, Kenyan taxpayers foot the 30 million ksh a day bill (roughly $300,000) for the train, which loses 1 billion Ksh at the end of every month.  That could change over time — but maybe not.

Wildlife conservationists believe the planned SGR Phase 2 route through Nairobi National Park will kill more animals and defraud Kenyan citizens of millions of shillings.

And that’s just one Chinese mega project. Kenya borrowed 327 billion Ksh from the Chinese to build SGR first phase, now complete.  In a second phase, the Chinese and Kenyans will extend the rail line through Nairobi National Park — a choice that the Conservation Alliance of Kenya has decried as another government sham job sacrificing environmental stewardship and due process of law for get-rich-quick special interests. SGR 2 will run northwest to Naivasha (a geothermal energy center) and ultimately, Kisumu and Uganda.  This phase will allow Kenyans and container cargo to speed through the entire country in less than a day, but the project will cost even more than SGR Phase 1.

Athman Ibraham, Kenyan Wildlife Protection Investigator

Is this the inevitable price of progress? Answering media and conservationist criticisms, Kenyatta’s government argues that China is ready and willing to help modernize the country, and the need is now.  Meanwhile the West (another blog post on that), mostly through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), has stood back and dribbled money into projects with so many conditions about governance and corruption reduction that the “help,” much of the time, seems impractical.

In fact, Kenya is experiencing a transformative Chinese “crush.”

More than 118 Chinese companies are now operating in Kenya, both large state-owned companies and private ones.  Three of the top corporates  — China Road & Bridge Corporation (a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company, the state-owned entity that built SGR), China Wu Yi Corporation, and Sinohydro Company Ltd. –recently received 4.1 billion Ksh  to repair Nairobi’s and rain-damaged roads.  Known for efficiency and fast construction turnaround times, the Chinese in the last few years have built most of Kenya’s super-malls, commercial megaplexes and landmark towers, among them $2.3 billion University of Nairobi Tower, the eight- lane Nairobi-Thika Superhighway, and several port expansion projects in Mombasa and Lamu.

Is there a price to pay?  Of course.   Building transport infrastructure and dumping product into the Kenyan marketplace enables the Chinese to get access to Africa’s interior — its mindshare, consumer markets,  raw minerals, including oil and gas, rhino horn, and rare earths.

How will Kenya pay back its debt?  The government’s current answer

Uhuru Kenyatta and Xi Jin Ping.  Both have staged anti-corruption campaigns.

is tax increases.  Right now 80% of Kenyan citizens don’t pay taxes because they have “temporary” or casual employment, not regular salaries.  The government wants to change that, hoping to expand the tax base with more jobs, avoiding the experience of struggling Zambia and Sri Lanka, which have been forced to relinquish key national assets — airports, national grid, tv stations, land tracts —  to the Chinese to repay loans.

In another world I wouldn’t give a damn about this.  But I do now because I’m here on a Fulbright Scholar’s program to research, at a deeper level, the China-Kenyan economic interaction and its effects on Kenyan labor, quality of life, legal rights, and opportunities for youth.  I’ve now encountered more than a few Chinese and Kenyans, and so far I haven’t witnessed, first hand, the deleterious effects of Chinese development.  What I have seen is the heartbreaking contrast between Kenya’s rich and poor.   I don’t pretend to understand all the problems, but Nairobi alone has 7 massive slums housing 2.5 million people, around 60% of the population in this city.  Government officials seem to be doing very little to alleviate these conditions.

A slum economy exists. Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa, is about six kilometers from center city, housing 250,000 inhabitants, 90% of which are tenants in shacks who have no rights.  The government owns the land.  There are no government hospitals or clinics in the slum; all medical care is provided by private agencies or churches.  Tribal tensions between the Kikuyu, the majority, the Luo, Nubian settlers originally from the Kenya-Sudan border, and a few other tribes exist. Until recently Kibera had no water and residents had to collect it from the Nairobi dam, a dirty source that causes typhoid and cholera.  Most of Kibera has no toilet facilities. One latrine (hole in the ground) is shared by up to 50 shacks; and once the latrine is filled, boys in the slum are dispatched to dump the contents back into the river.

Slums are always complex challenges. But they are emblematic of a national habit of looking the other way — agendas debated and exposed, then ignored and undone.

What enlivens this country, and what ails it, it seems to me, has little to do with the Chinese influence.  It’s a Kenyan — African — universal problem, namely, a deeply entrenched system of graft and greed among politicians, elite business people  and their network of minions.  There is no such thing as “conflict of interest” here; everybody has “interests.” Interests are made worse by entrenched patriarchy — a lack of women’s moral leadership at the top –along with an apparent unwillingness to enforce key civil protections outlined in the progressive 2010 Kenyan Constitution, a document that ought to be read and reread.

Thus far, I’ve seen no one, including Uhuru Kenyatta himself, look inward.  No one seems to address how grandiose visions and  unchecked acquisitive behavior actually harm the Kenyan citizens these leaders have sworn to protect.

The Kenyatta Legacy

Let’s start with Uhuru and his father, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first indigenous president who helped lead the country to independence from the British in 1963.

The Kenyattas are among the country’s most spectacularly wealthy families; recently Forbes lists Uhuru Kenyatta as the 26th richest man in Africa.  A 1978 CIA report, which was declassified and made public last year, documented thousands of acres of land his father, Jomo Kenyatta and 4th wife Mama Ngina acquired legally or illegally; no one is completely sure.  A recent article in Kenya’s sensational newspaper, Standard Media (which also does some good investigative reporting on the Chinese, I’ve discovered), claimed that in addition to land holdings, the family was involved in “high-powered wrangles over gemstones mines (rubies), a colossal stake in the charcoal trade, secret exports of [banned] ivory and an unspoken fear that Kenyans would revolt and seize back land from the First Family.”

The Kenyans didn’t stage that revolt. Jomo Kenyatta’s heir apparent, chosen president Daniel arap Moi, who remained president here for 24 years before stepping down in 2002, apparently protected the Kenyatta legacy and neutralized ministers who opposed the family.

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta

At that time, when Jimmy Carter was US president,  CIA operatives in Nairobi dispatched memos that the elder Kenyatta and his inner circle had skimmed a British fund intended to help the new Kenyan government purchase land tracts from European settlers for redistribution to hungry African farmers (the article in Standard Media, though not fully verified, is worth reading).  Some of the redistribution actually happened, though complex tribal conflicts (Kenya 46 ethnically distinct tribes) over land and village ownership, along with questions about Kenyatta’s wealth, periodically erupt into violence and sensational headlines.

Today, for example, the Kenyatta family has majority ownership of  Kenya’s  Heritage Hotels, MediaMax, Commercial Bank of Africa and Brookside Dairy Ltd, which controls 45 per cent of the processed milk market in Kenya.  According to the BBC, President Kenyatta is among the 8,500 Kenyans who own 2/3 of the country’s wealth.  Kenya has a population of nearly 51 million.  More than a third of all Kenyan citizens –35.6% — live on less than $1.90 per day, the “international poverty line,” according to a World Bank (WB) 2015/16 survey.   WB says the numbers of Kenyans living in abject poverty has been decreasing substantially since the last surveys of 2005/2006, when the impoverished of Kenya were measured at 43.6% of the population.  That’s good news.  But today’s figures still leave more than 17 million people in this country struggling, without a sou.

Anti-Corruption Crusader?

Kenyatta wants to be known as an anti-corruption crusader.  This past year he launched a “lifestyle audit” of all public officials in Kenya to rid the government departments of graft. He’s been vociferous about this, and can be credited with an ambitious “Big Four”agenda to improve housing, health care, public security and manufacturing in his country.

Anti-corruption, though, is his linchpin.  Thus far, four hundred senior procurement and accounting officials in the Kenyan government have been vetted and cleared (I wonder how thorough the audits really can be; one official claimed lie detectors are being used; another that stripping rich officials of personal assets like helicopters and high rises would make them “poor,” and citizens don’t like poor politicians).  Kenyatta is streamlining his government ministries to weed out his own version of “tigers and flies.” He’s even vowed on camera that he will submit his family finances — right down to his grandparents’ land and business holdings — to public scrutiny.  As he told the BBC reporter, Zeinab Badawi:“If there is an instance where somebody can say that what we have done or obtained has not been legitimate, say so, we are ready to face any court.”   But how any legal team would dare to go back 60 years to untangle the web of Kenyatta family assets –legitimate or not — is anyone’s guess, and likely impossible.

Look inward, Angel!

One has to accept that national politicians don’t get to where they are without great wealth. But the lifestyles of the president and his mayors, ministers, and county governors here pose a very disturbing contrast to what I see on the streets.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s new Nairobi compound.

One example is Kawangware, a slum on the West side of Nairobi I visited this past week to see how children in a  private school, Chosen Children of Promise, were managing.  The slum of Kawangware is now listed as seventh worst in Africa.  It’s a scrap metal shack city of high wind and staggeringly bad roads filled with garbage.  The slum houses over 100,000 residents, about 60 percent kids, and the poverty rate is so high that most residents live on less than $1 a day.   Most adults in the slums  seek some kind of job each day fixing things, carrying water (there is no running water in the slum), or cleaning houses.

Kawangware slum is situated next door to Lavington, one of the richest areas of Nairobi

Many families can’t afford more than a single meal a day.  Meat is expensive, sanitation and sewage systems non-existent; and all water has to be carried in jugs.

Kawangware also has a history of gangs and inter-ethnic warfare: 1200 died in 2007 in a disputed vote. During the 2017 Kenyatta-Odinga election controversy,  50 died.  Reuters reported that a man was beaten to death, rows of shops and homes set on fire as protestors assembled on a rumor that the Mungiki, a dreaded Kikuyu tribal militia, had infiltrated the slum.

When I visited Chosen Children of Promise,  though, I found a walled tin-roofed compound sheltering 126 schooI kids (grades 4-8) and a cadre of incredibly dedicated teachers and academic directors like Stella Mwangi, Benard Okoth and Hilda Mwavishi.  The group is working hard to give Kawangware neighborhood children a chance at education and life. [I’ve added this link for those who wish to donate.]

Learning computer coding at Chosen Children of Promise

The current school must be torn down within a year; it will cost $600,000 to build a new school; another 60,000 to replace a ten-year old school van that barely makes it over the Kawangware dirt roads.  The school survives on contributions from private citizens, the Life House Foundation in the US, and Christ Church of the Valley (San Dimas, CA), which helped establish Chosen Children as an NGO in 2004.

This school, part of network of 3 schools educating nearly 300 children in the nearby neighborhoods of Kawangware, Rirutta and Ngando, specifically nurtures kids who have been abandoned, orphaned, or raised by a parent or guardian with AIDS.  Yet the school has seen remarkable success getting middle schoolers into qualifying exams for the  best national and provincial high schools in the country.  Last year five kids from CCP made it into University, but only one girl.

“The boys are challenged in the slums without father figures and get into trouble; some run away and find ‘father figures’ in the males that sell guns or drugs,” said Benard Okosh, a star teacher and educational coordinator for the program.

Stella Mwangi, Managing Director of the Chosen Children of Promise Kawangware school

“Girls tend to do better than the boys,” Stella Mwangi rejoined.  “The girls will not act out their problems in school, but they struggle with self-esteem, self-image and identity in relationships.”  This may lead to higher drop-out rates and unwillingness or inability to imagine themselves going to college.  Stella and Benard agree that more follow-up with girls must be done.

The school, however, gives every child access to professional counselors, meals and snacks, some medical care, and extra bags of food for needy families.  But there isn’t enough money; and in many instances, strong religious belief and making do has to substitute for adequate support and firm plans for expansion.

Okay, so here’s my thought about this:  What in the world is the Nairobi County government doing with its money that it can’t pave these roads, put people to work cleaning up garbage and installing sewage systems?  Why can’t national government find money  (or borrow from the Chinese?) to at least ensure that every child in Kawangware and the six other major slums in Nairobi get nourished properly? Even more, why aren’t charitable schools in the slums like Chosen Children getting more financial help?

CCP fifth grader Florence Kemoni, 10 years old, wants to study medicine and surgery.

I asked Stella this.  “We’ve been waiting for the roads to be paved for at least three years,” she told me.  In Nairobi County, “one has to be patient,” she said.  There is only so much government money to go around.  Some of it — perhaps quite a bit of it — is being stuffed into the wrong pockets.






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