This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on March 29, 2015
Last week, Kenyans were outraged when it came to light that a Chinese restaurant in Nairobi had a policy of denying black people entrance into the establishment after 5pm.
Of course fury and outcry ensued and the restaurant has since been closed for allegedly failing to comply with various rules. But frankly, why are Kenyans surprised?
Racism has always been a prevalent theme in relations between African and non-African nations. Tensions even exist among Kenyans of different races and although we can all claim to be one nation and one people, the reality is starkly different.
But this Chinese Restaurant fiasco is important as it brings to light the unspoken racism narrative embedded in economic and social development efforts in Africa by non-African actors.
Africans are routinely infantilised in development circles with the default position often being that Africans cannot quite seem to figure out how to ‘develop’ and need external (read non-African) help.
Although one would assume that the “Africa Rising” narrative would challenge notions of African inferiority by demonstrating that the continent houses intelligent and innovative individuals, a closer analysis of this narrative reveals its flaws.
Africa is only ‘rising’ because it’s catching up with the rest of the world. Although there can be nuanced, ‘Africanised’ manifestations of this rising such as M-Pesa, essentially it’s a catch up game.
The symbolic representation of authority, expertise and knowledge are still non-African in origin. Indeed, the distinction between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ is often framed in terms of EuroAmerican yardsticks of levels of industrialisation, gross domestic product and democratisation. In the past EuroAmerica was the sole fount of wisdom but now with the economic rise of China, they too have become ‘experts’ from whom Africans can learn.
Now there is no problem in learning from others. Indeed, it should be encouraged but if distinctions between those who possess expertise and those to whom it should be imparted are based only on where they come from and the colour of their skin, that’s a problem. Perhaps part of the outrage with the Chinese restaurant incident is that Kenyans expected citizens from a nation that has been subjected to racism itself to be repulsed by racism.
Indeed, perhaps a silent bond between Africa and China, especially at government levels, is that both parties ‘get’ how annoying racism can be when dealing with certain EuroAmerican delegates.
Despite what has been vociferous Sinophobic commentaries of China’s ‘neo-colonial’ and ‘imperialistic’ march into Africa by some quarters, a sense of solidarity between China and Africa persists. Perhaps Kenyans, like other Africans, felt that although China’s involvement in the continent has serious problems and drawbacks, at least racism is not the infuriating invisible elephant in the room.
Maybe Kenyans felt that China, and therefore the Chinese, are development partners that genuinely respect them. The Chinese restaurant fiasco busted this myth and feelings of solidarity. Kenyans felt deeply violated. Because this blatant act of racism occurred here, the audacity of the disrespect was incredible. But to the point made at the start, Kenyans may be outraged but they should not be surprised by what happened.
Why? Because, despite the fact that we live in a multipolar world with multiple centres of power, Kenya (and indeed Africa) has largely failed to use this to our advantage.We don’t seem to be too intelligent. We still export raw materials and import manufactured goods — they just come from China now.
This incident may be the much needed wake-up call for Kenyans to realise that the perception persists that we need to work smarter and earn genuine respect. Maybe now we get it.
Ms Were is a development economist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @anzetse