In 2010, I wrote a post on Chinese-descended Kenyans that focused in particular on the story of a Kenyan girl from Lamu Island, Mwamaka Sharifu who was discovered to have Chinese ancestors (believed to be stranded sailors from Zheng He's fleet who were welcomed on the island centuries ago). To bring back the story;
Legend in Lamu Island says two of the Chinese ships struck rocks off the eastern coast of Kenya and 20 sailors swam ashore. However, local tribes said they could only stay if they could kill a big python in the village.Mwamaka Sharifu's story has been going around tumblr (mostly started due to talk about a coin. It's funny that we at the BN were talking about coins and Africa-China history in 2010, and it became news in 2013! And I'm linking to the Daily Mail so that you can all read the comments and suffer like I did. "Maybe it is just an old coin that was part of a child's coin collection and was lost in the 1920's?" one Patrick from Belfast says because there is no way that East Africans and China could have engaged in bilateral relations. And I'm sure that child with the coin collection was "white". This is why "white" opinions never matter). Someone on tumblr asked about how her experiences in China must have been "after she undoubtedly must have experienced at least some racism during her time there". Sharifu was entirely optimistic before she went to China...
One sailor - a master swordsman - lured the python out of the cave and killed it. The Chinese sailors stayed, married local women and converted to Islam.
The heritage of Chinese descendants in the African village has been passed on from generation to generation, not by written records but by oral tradition.
"My grandma said some Chinese sailors came to Kenya by way of the Indian Ocean. Most of them died after a storm at sea but some survived," Sharifu recalled. [Source]
"I feel proud and happy to be part of it," she said. "I am looking forward to studying in China."...but how would living in China and experiencing racism and other forms of discrimination have affected her view? Well it turns out that there is a follow up article on Mwamaka Sharifu. She is now a Doctor and has been in China for TEN YEARS.
Sharifu said she admires Zheng's courage and adventurous spirit. "I was born as brave as my ancestors," she said. "It is rare for girls in my Muslim village to go so far to study, to such a big and different country."
"My mum and dad were worried about me. But I told them I will be fine in my home country." [Source]
“The initial two years were full of challenges, but I’m glad I was able to finish the Chinese language course and can now not only speak and write in it, but also translate it to Kiswahili or English with ease,” she says.“Unlike the other languages I was used to, there are no alphabets in Chinese, but only 3,000 characters which one has to memorise before applying. Now I understand why it takes at least two years to study the language because one word can have so many meanings and usages. It all depends on the pronunciation,” she said in a 2007 interview.But language was not her only difficulty in China. The food and culture were hard to adapt to.“I gradually adapted to the life and managed to live almost like the Chinese,” she recalls.And then there was her faith.“As a young Muslim lady life was more difficult because of huge cultural differences. At the beginning I would spend most of the time indoors to avoid things that are forbidden in Islamic culture. I used to cook my own food for fear of eating haram food. However, with time I got used to the culture and fear disappeared and I chose to do what was right,” she says.
She is currently an intern doctor at the Nanjing Municipal Hospital, the third affiliated hospital to Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.She says she would have desired to practise in Kenya but the opportunities for internship in Kenya or elsewhere are rare as Chinese medicine is still new in many countries.“I haven’t really worked in China due to visa restrictions but, as part of course requirements, I undertook a one-year internship as part of fifth year studies. I think working as a foreign doctor in China is a challenge because mostly the Chinese would not prefer to be treated by a foreign doctor, more so one dealing with Chinese medicine, because they believe that’s their thing.”And Dr Sharifu’s quest for knowledge did not end with acquiring her first degree. “Having successfully completed my basic degree, I found it prudent to further my knowledge in this field that is quite nascent in Kenya. I have set my sights on imparting the skills and knowledge in medical institutions in Kenya or elsewhere, and that is why I opted to continue with my studies with the hope of graduating with a master’s degree from the same university,” she says.She plans to return to Kenya and practise medicine and engage in community work after her studies. [Source]
While she didn't really give insight into the discrimination she may have faced in China, I noticed that her optimism has dimmed considerably, she is no longer referring to China as her "home country" and seems eager to return to Kenya.
This was written in 2012, I wonder if she's back in Kenya now. Still Mwamaka Sharifu's story seems to be a success. Even more so because she wishes to empower more girls and women in her community. I wish her continued success and hope that when she goes back home she can really make that change and give Lamu its first woman senator.