Marriages between Chinese and Kenyans are breaching cultural divide in Africa
Three years ago, Ya Xing married Ruth Njeri before his friends and family in China. He is considered brave among his peers for starting a new life in Kenya but the ebullient entrepreneur, once a TV host, does not think so.
“I am in love,” he said. “It might look complicated to marry into a new culture, but I think people think too much of it.”
Ya, 40, hails from Luoyang, an industrial city in Central China’s Henan province. He met Njeri, 34, from Nairobi, Kenya in a restaurant in Shanghai while she was studying on a Chinese government scholarship. At the time, they were both participating in the World Expo and met again a month later in Shanghai just before sharing a stage during the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in Beijing in 2011.
“It was fate, Yuánfèn“, Ya said.
Ya and Njeri are among the new faces defining Sino-African relations. People-to-people exchanges, riding on the back of education, commerce and diplomacy, have buoyed interracial marriages.
Moreover, in China, they have serious followers on social media platforms. Last year, Beijing Youth Daily reported that a Chinese and Cameroonian couple in Northeast China’s Liaoning province earn $1,000 in advertising revenue from streaming their lives online in a good month.
Albeit earning no proceeds, Ya and Njeri often welcome media crews from China into their Nairobi home to document their lives. Moreover, they often travel to China to sing at cultural events while responding to a growing fanbase on WeChat. They field questions on how they deal with cultural differences.
One analyst believes that their experiences may pave way to bettering Sino-African trade ties where culture and language continue to be the biggest impediments.
In an interview with Xinhua last year, David Monyae, a scholar in South Africa, said understanding each other’s culture, history, and even law remains the key to consolidating China-Africa relations. He noted there was a growing interest among African youths in understanding cultures and this would shape the China-Africa future narrative.
He noted that the two cultures have a lot of similarities. The African philosophy of Ubuntu is not far from Confucianism, as both emphasize sharing and caring.
“In Ubuntu, we believe that ‘I am because of you,’ which means I cannot exist in your absence. Your wellbeing is good for me, as well. For me to get peace in my life, I have to make sure that my neighbor is not hungry and there’s peace in my neighbor’s house,” Monyae said.
Confucianism, on the other hand, emphasizes humanity and good conduct.
Studies done on interracial marriages have shown that education plays an important role in breaching the cultural divide. In 2015, a report in South Africa by North-West University in Mahikeng and another by the Pew Research Center analyzing the US Census Bureau showed that attainment of higher education increased the chances of interracial marriages in the two countries.
Interestingly, there has been a notable surge in the number of Africans pursuing higher studies in China. In 2017, at least 62,000 students were in China, a 24 percent jump compared to 2016. There now are more than 2,000 Kenyans studying in China, according to the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi.
During this period, there has been a spike in the number of Chinese-Kenyan marriages. The government received 44 percent more requests for the certificate of no impediment in 2018 compared to the previous year. This document is acquired by a Kenyan who wishes to marry outside the country. It indicates that there is no obstruction, inhibition, barrier or valid reason as to why the marriage should not take place.
Xu Jing and Henry Rotich placed three requests to the registrar of marriages in Kenya before they were finally married in China in 2006. They are seen with their children in a park. [Lucie Morangi/China Daily]Although the processing and courier time has been drastically reduced due to improved logistics between the two countries, it was not easy a decade ago. Xu Jing and Henry Rotich placed three requests before they were finally married in China in 2006.
They met in 1999 at Northeast University in Shenyang, Northeast China’s Liaoning province. Xu was studying for a bachelor’s degree in education and Rotich was doing a master’s in chemistry through a government scholarship and later studied for a doctorate.
Twice, the certificate had expired before they received it. “Things are different now, I think,” said Xu, who currently works at the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi.
She admits to being behind her husband’s decision to pursue a doctorate. “This was important to me. But I also think it is better to finish studies before embarking on a career and family,” she said.
Her father did not object to her decision. He is open minded, said Xu, recalling his insistence to enroll her in a middle school 20 kilometers away from home so that she could learn English. She knew little about Kenya when she agreed to marry Rotich.
It was difficult to leave behind her family and a career at Jilin University in Changchun. Criticism from friends did not make it any easier.
“The food is different. My children have learned to roll Ugali, a staple food made from maize meal, into a ball and accompany it with vegetables,” she says.
On the other hand, Rotich says Xu’s parents did not ask for cows and goats, a traditional African dowry paid for the bride.
Ya faced challenges, too, when he settled with Njeri in Nairobi. To earn a living, they opened a business that soon collapsed because the location and idea were not good. Furthermore, he had difficulties communicating with his in-laws despite successfully performing the traditional bride price ceremony known as ruracio.
The talented musician says in Kikuyu, where Njeri hails from, they have traditional songs similar to those sung by the Dong people of southern China. “The tune and even the ululation are similar.”
They want their children to be resilient and appreciate their mixed identity. Mandarin is strictly spoken in both Xu’s and Njeri’s homes and the children spend a lot of time with both grandparents.
“We seek environments that make them comfortable and affirm their identity,” says Xu. “Sometimes they ask whether they are Kenyans or Chinese. We tell them they are uniquely both.”
“Mandarin is a beautiful language and it is now a tool for opening the world. They therefore have a better opportunity to build bridges between China and Africa by understanding both cultures,” Rotich added.
“The world is shrinking. And even when I miss home, I have built a home and support group here in Kenya,” said Xum adding that the growing Chinese community in Kenya has been rather supportive.
Ya believes that media and strengthened relations between Chinese and African people will eventually debunk negative stereotyping that has previously shaped the two societies.
Ya and Njeri formed a band that performs for foreign tourists visiting the country. “There is a lot to talk about when it comes to Chinese and African cultures. We only need a platform and good examples to drive the conversation,” Njeri said.
By Lucie Morangi