COVID-19 and Xenophobia: Reflections from Kenya

Zoe SoField Team Blogs

Photo at the top of this post: Social distancing measures implemented at a bakery in Yaya Centre in Nairobi. Photo credit: Zoe So.

Kenya confirmed a first COVID-19 case on March 13. The number of known cases has by now passed the 200 mark. The country has shut down in phases. I have been mostly self-isolating in my Nairobi home with my husband and in-laws. On video calls with friends and family in New York, Hong Kong, and Kenya, we talk about the usual things in this new normal: The changing economic, social, and travel restrictions in our respective locations. The precautions we’re each taking. Our new work-from-home routines, or lack thereof. Our frustrations at that one family member or friend who refuses to take social distancing seriously. What we’re watching online. (Me: DNice’s Instagram Live DJ sets. Kingdom. Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings. And yes, Tiger King.)

A few friends also ask me this: “Are you experiencing any xenophobia?”

I don’t really know how to answer this question accurately without going off on a long monologue, so I say simply, “Yes.”

In truth, I’ve only encountered one racist incident overtly related to COVID-19. My husband’s family recently opened a café in Nairobi. In the spirit of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous 茶餐廳 eateries (“cha chan teng”. Translation: tea restaurant), the café has an eclectic fusion menu inspired by our family’s roots in Hong Kong, Kenya, and New York. On March 1, someone came to the café to pick up dinner for his boss. I remember it was a balmy evening, typical of Nairobi summer. We had just shifted our hours to stay open a little later, to try to catch the early dinner crowd, and we were glad to see it seemed to be working. As our customer waited for his order, he joked with one of the wait staff, in Kiswahili, “Does the food have coronavirus?” Likely he did not expect that my in-laws and husband, all Kenyan citizens of Chinese descent, could understand him. My husband and father in-law did not respond to the remark directly. Instead, they decided to sit and chat with him in their fluent, Nairobi-accented Kiswahili, building a connection through language. The unspoken message: “We are Kenyan, just like you.”

An off-color joke. No real harm done. Really not that big of a deal, on the spectrum of COVID-19 racism and in the litany of COVID-19 tragedies.

But when I respond “yes,” what I really mean is:  My in-laws, my husband, and I have been on alert since the first news emerged back in January of a mysterious illness in China, well before the fear and contagion of the virus was immediate in much of the world outside Asia. We talked about avoiding crowded places and markets in case of any violent xenophobic incidents, like this one that took place in Nairobi, and others highlighted in this article. We heard rumors that anyone who looked Chinese was being harassed at the airport, and the nature of my job with Whole Planet Foundation takes me through airports often. We worried whether the café would be affected. When business suddenly took a dip for two weeks in February, well before Nairobians started to self-isolate and the town went quiet, we suspected it was because of fears of the virus. But we could never really know for sure.

I say “yes”, because of my own awareness and lived experience of discrimination against Asian-Americans in the United States. Though I know it’s unfair to transplant this perspective to Kenyan soil, my conditioned defenses are up. For months, my social media feeds have been filled with Asian-American friends posting with humor and anger and fear about backlash because of the virus. On March 14, in Midland, Texas, a man stabbed members of a Burmese-American family at a Sam’s Club out of fear of the disease. Among the victims were two young children, a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. Physical and verbal assaults persist all over the country, even though the disease itself does not discriminate based on skin color. Anti-Asian sentiment has a long history in the United States, and this pandemic is just the latest trigger. Before Covid-19, there was (and still is) the “yellow peril” rhetoric. Before then, the murder of Vincent Chin, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and countless other indignities big and small.

Sinophobia in Kenya

The contours of Sinophobia in Kenya are very different. My husband is third generation Chinese Kenyan. His family’s chapter in Kenya started during World War II, when my husband’s grandfather joined a ship’s crew in Hong Kong. When the ship reached Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast, he decided to stay. The family relocated to Nairobi forty years ago. Unlike me, who grew up in New York, my husband did not have the protections and solace of a strong minority community. He can count on his fingers the other Chinese Kenyans of his generation. He personally knows all of them.

In the past five years or so, he has watched as a new surge of immigration has created an increasingly visible Chinese presence in Kenya. This new surge rides on a wave of rapidly growing Chinese investments in infrastructure, many of which come with a large price tag in the form of heavily leveraged government debt. To share a sense of what this shift looks like, I’ll borrow a few paragraphs from April Zhu’s article in The Elephant, referenced earlier:

“Five years ago, there were only a handful of Chinese restaurants in Nairobi, some Chinese-run casinos and markets, and a dejected “China Centre” that was meant to be doing something diplomatic. Five years ago, there was no Standard Gauge Railway stretching from Mombasa to Nairobi, built by World Bank-blacklisted Chinese contractors with loans extended by the Chinese Import-Export Bank and tainted with political graft. There was no Xinhua headquarters. No Chinese children at art summer camps. This is no longer the case.

The narrative of the Chinese takeover is a simple story, and simple stories are the strongest, like deep, ready grooves along which individual stories and images slide, all going in the same direction. The Chinese man caning a Kenyan employee melds into frozen Chinese tilapia thawed and sold in Gikomba as Lolwe’s fresh catch melds into “Made in China” vitenge melds into the Chinese man caught on video calling Uhuru a monkey.”

The ripple effects of the pandemic are adding even more layers to an already complex Africa-China relationship, generating goodwill and anger in rapid succession.  As China emerges from their main battle with COVID-19, the government is now contending with the domestic and global reputational fallout of the pandemic while bracing for a potential second wave of the virus.

China has been engaging with countries everywhere through “mask diplomacy.” Jack Ma, the co-founder of Chinese tech giant Alibaba, is donating 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks, and 1,000 PPE units and face shields to each of the 54 countries on the African continent. Kenya and other countries have already received initial shipments. Meanwhile, a cluster of new cases of the virus in China was linked to a Nigerian community in Guangzhou. This past weekend, reports surfaced that Africans in Guangzhou were evicted from their homes, sleeping in the streets, and subjected to forced Covid-19 testing and quarantine, regardless of travel and contact history. Across Africa, the outcry from the public and backlash from governments have been immediate.

I saw someone from Nairobi post this on Instagram on March 20, re: COVID-19: “If the Chinese come save us we’ll be fine. They own half of Kenya so they should!”

A few days ago, as the news of anti-African xenophobia in Guangzhou circulated, a Kenyan Member of Parliament said: “It is only fair that all Chinese nationals leave the country with immediate effect…Go back home.”

Versions of this fraught dynamic have been playing out in other countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa since well before COVID-19. Chinese government investments are viewed simultaneously as pragmatic trade-offs, better alternatives to paternalistic “Western” development aid, and a new form of colonialism. In the “takeover narrative,” Sinophobia is a reaction of a colonized population against a new colonizing force. The outlines of individual stories disappear, consumed by the bigger narrative. My husband’s skin color, and mine, come to symbolize foreignness, privilege, and exploitation.

Closing Thoughts

I have a flow chart of sorts in my head for “responses to racism.” (And for sexism too). The decisions pivot mostly on questions of context: Who? Where? Logic and experience tell me that “Where are you really from?,” asked repeatedly by an American in New York, probably has a very different subtext than the same question asked by a maize farmer in rural Ethiopia. Context matters. If I’m honest, though, sometimes logic goes out the window and my reactions pivot on my mood: tired, cheeky, irritated, relaxed. Sometimes I snap or pick fights when I shouldn’t. I’m not proud of those moments, but they happen.

In the time of COVID-19, it feels like we are all in high gear, striving for logic and calm against a wave of heightened emotions. We balance self-preservation instincts with an inner calling to connect with and help our neighbors. We try to hold on to a sense of normalcy in a world that we suspect is careening out of control, with no end in sight. Almost everyone in the world will be touched by the health, social, and economic tolls of this virus, but we will each experience it in our own ways. This pandemic has exposed some deep cracks in our society. If I can dare to hope for something positive out of all of this, I will hope we come out on the other side of this shared trauma with deeper empathy for each person’s unique journey, and a renewed sense of our common humanity.

About the Author:

Zoe joined Whole Planet Foundation in June 2016 as a Program Manager supporting the Africa and Middle East portfolio. In this photo, she is visiting one of our Kenya partners, The BOMA project.

Prior to joining WPF, Zoe started an independent consultancy specializing in program strategies and partnership development for NGOs and social enterprises. She worked at BRAC USA for three years, where she supported financial inclusion and youth empowerment initiatives in Uganda, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone. Zoe has also worked in operations, grant management, and monitoring and evaluation in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and served in the Peace Corps as a small enterprise development volunteer in Senegal. She holds dual master’s degrees in international affairs and journalism from Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University.