The Kenyan Mwamaka Sharifu is a star in China. She is said to be descended from the famous Chinese navigator Zheng He. With the cult around both figures, Beijing wants to pretty up its world power aspirations.
IN THE EVENING, WHEN IT WAS LATE in Beijing and the fire pot had cooled down our throats with relish, when the Sichuan pepper danced on our tongues and we leaned back in our chairs, euphorically exhausted, my friends liked to tell a story. Somewhere in East Africa lived people who looked a little like them. Like Chinese. Almond eyes to dark skin.
Great-great-great-great-grandchildren of a mighty Chinese fleet that had sailed all the way to Africa 600 years ago – long before Christopher Columbus was born. Until the outbreak of the First World War, the world was not to experience a larger armada than this one. 28,000 sailors, 300 ships. Where exactly the enigmatic descendants were to live, none of my friends knew to say. Vaguely, like a premonition, the story hung over us for a feather-light moment, carrying us through the alleys of Beijing’s old town to distant shores. The next morning it was forgotten until it was unearthed again a few months later.
It was only many years later, when I had long since lived in Africa, that I realised that my Chinese friends must have meant the reports about Mwamaka Sharifu. A Kenyan woman with almond eyes.
I first heard her name in a café in Nairobi when I first met the wonderful Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, with whom I was to become friends subsequently. Yvonne fictionalised Mwamaka Sharifu’s story in her book Dragonfly Sea – without ever having met her. Mwamaka Sharifu, she told me, came from a village on the Kenyan island of Pate and stood out because of her Asian features. Supposedly, she was a descendant of a sailor from the legendary fleet of the Chinese navigator Zheng Hes. At some point, the Chinese embassy discovered her, invited her to China and exploited her with great pomp.
I am electrified.
The first article I find about Mwamaka Sharifu is from 2005. A photo in the „China Daily“, a propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party, shows a young woman in a Chinese dress, wearing a hat with a huge pink plastic flower and smiling as if she had won a prize. The text below says: „Nearly 600 years ago, 20 Chinese sailors swam onto the shore of an island on Kenya’s east coast.“ The Chinese stayed, married local women and converted to Islam. Or so local legend would have it. „Now a 19-year-old girl who claims to be a descendant is coming to China to study Chinese medicine here after receiving a scholarship from the Chinese government.“ As early as 2002, Chinese experts had travelled to her village of Siyu on Pate Island to take hair samples from her mother, which were tested for DNA in China. The result: Chinese ancestry. Five other of the 7500 islanders also had Chinese genes, writes the „China Daily“. In the article, the protagonist praises her new host country in the highest terms: „China is so much better than I thought. So beautiful and well organised.“
Countless times Mwamaka Sharifu appears in Chinese press, radio and television. The city of Taicang, where the sailors began their journey at that time, declares her the „daughter of the city“, some officials will attend her graduation ceremony years later as „parents“. The Foreign Ministry celebrates her as a „living example of the long friendship between China and Africa“. The government website praises, „she spreads positive energy and contributes to the development of China-Kenya relations“. At one of the many events, Sharifu says she would like to marry a Chinese one day – her great-grandfather once swore to preserve Chinese blood.
Perhaps it is just a coincidence that Mwamaka Sharifu comes to China in 2005 of all years, the year in which China celebrates the 600th anniversary of the voyage of the seafarer Zheng He with great pomp. The sea roars on all channels, celebrating a country that for a moment was considered the greatest seafaring nation – until it condemned itself to maritime insignificance. Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch of the Ming period, is said to have made seven expeditionary voyages from 1405 to 1433, taking him as far as India, Sumatra, Ceylon, Arabia and East Africa. He was supposed to increase the power and glory of his emperors, collect tribute from the „barbarians across the sea“. But he founded no colonies, did not hunt for slaves, merely brought leopards and giraffes home to the empire. „Unlike other later European adversaries who sailed across the great oceans to conquer other lands by force, China’s fleet brought tea, porcelain, silk and handicrafts to foreign lands,“ writes the China Daily. „It gave peace and civilisation to the rest of the world without ever conquering another country – an achievement that symbolises the old empire’s sincere intention to promote exchanges with other countries.“ By celebrating Zheng He, China is shouting a message to the world. And it is spreading it at the very moment when it is rising to be a great power again, a sea power. At a time when it is vehemently asserting its claims in the South and East China Seas and competing with the USA for supremacy in the Pacific. In which many eye its rise to power with suspicion. Fear not. We want peace. Our rise is your advantage.
Long forgotten, Zheng He was a hero no one called for. After his last voyage, the emperor – at the instigation of Confucian scholars, for whom the influence of eunuchs like Zheng He was a thorn in the flesh – had seafaring banned. It was not financially profitable anyway, and the empire was increasingly exposed to attacks by the Mongols from the interior.
The Confucians had the ships burnt and left to rot in the docks, large parts of Zheng He’s records were destroyed, and by 1525 there was nothing left of the great fleet. China turned inwards, isolated itself. Until, with the start of the reform policy in 1978 and its fabulous rise, it began to embrace the world. And who would be a better ambassador than Zheng He?
The leadership uses him when it pursues its „diplomacy of smiles“ worldwide when President Xi Jinping invites people to Beijing for the great Silk Road Conference. For Zheng, says the president, was „a friendly envoy who earned his place in history not as a conqueror with warships, guns and swords, but sailing along on treasure-laden ships“. And it is precisely this spirit that his country is pursuing with the Silk Road project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the largest infrastructure project of all time, with which it is building ports, railway lines, pipelines, power plants, roads and airports all over the world.
In fact, Beijing is not only pursuing geopolitics, but also geoeconomics, advancing globalisation according to its own ideas. Because with the railway lines come follow-up orders, technical standards are set and connections are forged, Beijing’s power and the dependence of its partners increases. The partner countries benefit from the arrangement; they can realise long-cherished infrastructure projects with Chinese help. At the same time, many of them will one day be unable to service their loans. Who will benefit as a result? Will resources or political goodwill be the price? When Kenya and China opened the Chinese-built railway from Nairobi to Mombasa in 2017, the country’s biggest infrastructure project since independence, they did so under a statue of Zheng He in Mombasa. Already, China holds more than 70 per cent of Kenya’s bilateral foreign debt – and huge infrastructure projects are coming. East Africa is one of the big players in the Silk Road project. Tanzania and Kenya are competing to build East Africa’s largest port, and in both cases the builders are the Chinese. The whole region is to be networked, railway lines, logistics centres, ports, infrastructure corridors. In Lamu, Kenya, a mega-port is currently being built with Chinese help, along with a coal-fired power plant. Chinese companies are also drilling for oil and gas there. The projects are controversial among cultural and nature conservationists, and they are being pushed ahead under great secrecy. And in precisely this neuralgic archipelago, where numerous political and economic interests intersect, lies the island of Pate, from which the Kenyan Mwamaka Sharifu comes.
In the months that followed, I began to do research. The DNA test that Chinese experts performed on her mother was not published in any of the relevant scientific publications. Western experts doubt the results. „People on all coasts of the Indian Ocean have traces of Chinese, African, Indian and Australian Polynesian DNA,“ says Martin Rundkvist, an archaeologist at the British University of Chester. In the towns and islands of Swahili culture that line the coast of East Africa like a string of pearls, you still see people of all shades of skin. Local elites interwove with traders from Arabia, Yemen, India, Iran, who sailed to East Africa with the monsoon winds. It is impossible to trace DNA back to a specific Chinese sailor, says Rundkvist, unless one is in possession of genetic comparison material from the very sailor who lived 600 years ago. „It’s suspiciously expedient for China to find alleged links at the very moment it is seeking resources in Africa.“ Expedient, but perhaps not impossible.
Chinese historians report on Zheng He’s adventures. They document, for example, his journey to Malindi, a historic Swahili town on Kenya’s east coast, which is also the source of the giraffes that caused such a stir in China. But they do not mention a shipwreck off Pate. Nor is there anything about it in the written sources that record Pate’s history, the so-called Pate Chronicle or the records of local imams. But large parts of Pate’s history were passed on orally – and the legend of the Chinese had been told here for a long time. Archaeological investigations did not yield any results that could have corroborated it. Chinese pots, urns, coins and porcelain have been found in Pate, as in many other places in East Africa, but they do not necessarily come from Chinese ships. Chinese porcelain was a popular commodity that traders of various nationalities hawked.
Large parts of the story are still in the dark, but the fact is: when Chinese diplomats, scientists and businessmen in Kenya learn about the legend, they soon push ahead with archaeological research. „Chinese were early on Godfather,“ says Chap Kusimba, a Kenyan anthropologist who teaches at American University in Washington. „They started test drilling for oil and gas exploration as early as the early 2000s.“ In 2010, the Chinese sent archaeologists who spent three years diving for the fabled shipwreck. It was the most expensive Chinese archaeology project outside China. But the work turned out to be difficult, the current there is strong, they found wrecks, but not Chinese ones.
I try to reach the Chinese embassy in Kenya. For a year I try to get an interview – without success. I find out from the embassy website that diplomats visit the Sharifu family for the first time in 2002. At that time, Mwamaka’s parents had problems paying their school fees, so the embassy stepped in. Later, Mwamaka wrote to the embassy asking if she could study in China, and the then ambassador Guo Chongli intervened on her behalf at the Ministry of Education. With a scholarship from the Chinese state, Mwamaka studied in Nanjing and completed a double Master’s degree in traditional and integrated western and traditional paediatrics in 2012. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in gynaecology in Wuhan.
It takes months before I manage to get Mwamaka Sharifu’s number through many detours. I get it from a Chinese doctor living in Kenya. I write back and forth with Mwamaka Sharifu for many more months. She still lives in China. Again and again she agrees to an interview, only to put me off again.
I decide to travel to Pate. Drizzle surrounds us as the plane touches down in Lamu, Pate’s neighbouring island. Once Lamu and Pate were rivals, but while Lamu is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, a tourist magnet, a jewel of Swahili architecture, Pate is all but forgotten.
The captain of a small motorboat agrees to take me to Pate. We sail along Lamu’s promenade, past magnificent mansions, the women swaying their hips over the cobblestones, turn into a mangrove-covered inlet and finally reach the open sea. The waves crash hard against the bow of our boat, making it dance up and down menacingly. A barge full of Chinese workers with yellow helmets comes towards us, waving good-humouredly. To the left is a huge construction site on the mainland, huge cranes towering into the sky; this is where Lamu’s mega-port is being built.
And for a moment I see container ships from all over the world docking in front of me, pilot boats navigating between mighty tankers, hundreds of lights of waiting ships at night in the archipelago. But then our boat reaches Pate, and the future dissolves like a mirage. In that oppressive midday heat, where time seems to have stood still for decades. As if this place had been forgotten while the world rushed forward. The harbour, that is a narrow jetty, on it a handful of figures who seem surprised that anyone ever visits them, and five piki-pikis, motorbike taxis. One of them carries me across the almost deserted interior of the island, past salt steppes and dry palm trees, mangroves and a lonely old man driving his donkeys.
We reach Siyu, Mwamaka Sharifu’s home village. The entrance to the village is marked by a baobab tree, into whose bark someone has pinned „Siyu“ with coloured pins. We speed through a sleepy village, the huts made of mud and straw, only those who are lucky enough to know relatives abroad have afforded a house made of concrete. Bollywood sounds emanate from open windows. Siyu, which the High Commissioner of Zanzibar is said to have called „the pearl of East Africa“, was once a centre of Indian craftsmanship. But those days are long gone, the mansions are dilapidated, creepers creep into their walls, those who can have moved away long ago.
Siyu’s pride and joy is the mighty fort. Its guard first shows me his personal bible, „The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People“, which he has handwritten in a school book to better remember the wisdom it contains. Then he hands me Siyu’s visitor’s book. The Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, the party organ „China Daily“ and the Chinese ambassador are written in it. We now take the same route as the Chinese. And I imagine the ambassador wading through the mud, trying not to soil his leather shoes, trying to squeeze past cattle, cats and dogs, trying to step elegantly into the brick-built, straw-covered homestead that is Mwamaka Sharifu’s birthplace. In the courtyard sits her sister Fathma Omar Khalifa, 40 years old, sorting peas. There is a broad smile on her bright, round face; she looks a little Indian. She is not a bit surprised that visitors from faraway countries ask about her sister, and pulls out a stack of photos. The sister with the former ambassador; the sister talking to journalists; a camera crew filming the family; the sister in front of the Shanghai skyline in black hijab and gold glitter shoes – stages of a career as a rediscovered Chinese woman. „The grandmother,“ says Khalifa, „looked very Chinese: fair skin and soft hair.“ When Mwamaka was in primary school, the Chinese came. Journalists, scientists, at some point also diplomats. That the sister was allowed to go to China was a great opportunity, says Khalifa. „Some in the village were jealous. Others were happy for us. In the eyes of the neighbours, our family is very successful.“ Khalifa laughs proudly and waves happily as we leave the farm.
In the village, a man tells me, many wanted to become Chinese now. To be Chinese, that is the way to success. But unfortunately, he shrugs, not everyone can do it.
Back in Lamu, I go to the museum. It is the only one in Kenya that shows Swahili culture. The exhibits are fantastic, but the condition of the museum is all the sadder. The paint is peeling off the walls, the windows are smeared, bats hang from the ceiling. Kenya’s research clearly needs money. And this money is increasingly coming from China, says Mohamed Hassan Ali, the museum director. „For a long time they have been trying to prove the existence of the shipwrecked sailors.“ Three years ago, for example, Chinese and Kenyan archaeologists were digging together in neighbouring Manda, he says. „There was a conference, the Chinese presented the results of their investigations. They said they had done DNA tests on skeletons.“ The result: one skeleton was of Chinese descent. Kenyan anthropologist Chap Kusimba laughs when I ask him about it. He himself led the excavation in 2012, with an all-Kenyan team, during which the skeletons were found. And the aforementioned excavation in 2017 together with a Chinese team, which, however, had nothing to do with the skeletons. The bones have never been genetically tested, but based on certain features, Kusimba believes one of them belongs to an unspecified foreigner. „I don’t know if there was a translation error in the Chinese colleague’s presentation – in any case, he falsely claimed to have been present when the skeletons were discovered.“ Also, the „China Daily“ had simply written that the skeleton was Chinese. In the course of the joint work, Kusimba gained the impression that the Chinese team was not so much concerned with gaining scientific knowledge. „They are trying to spread a certain narrative: that their history with Africa was never colonial in nature.“
More months pass until suddenly Mwamaka Sharifu calls me. Her voice sounds warm. She talks about how she arrived in China many years ago and how everything was foreign and disturbing. She staggered from TV show to TV show, from banquet to banquet. It was overwhelming and at the same time a great opportunity. After all, she wanted to prove that a Siyu girl could make it. She struggled through the foreign language and her studies, all on her own. She never found the Chinese man of her dreams. „Here in China, you have a hard time as a foreigner. A foreigner remains a foreigner even if he has Chinese blood.“
Finally, in Nairobi, I meet George Abungu, one of Kenya’s most important archaeologists. He says he has worked with the Chinese in many ways. „They want to develop programmes that prove a historical connection from China to Africa. They are interested in Pate, whether they come for the port or the oil. And on the side, they probably want to demonstrate some social responsibility.“ In the end, however, oil production could drain the island, and the port, coal-fired power plant, oil and gas could destroy the archaeological sites. „The Chinese come through research,“ Abungu says, smiling softly. „But this is nothing new for us. The Westerners came through the missionaries. They said, ‚Close your eyes. And when we opened them, our land was gone.“