Chinese migrants in Kenya: Why do they seek religion?

Ge Yuchen

“For Chinese residents like us, Jehovah’s Witness is not only a church that forsakes all kinds of racial prejudices, but also an ideal place for interacting with local people,” explained Mr. D, a Chinese dentist who has been working in Kenya for over twenty years. Mr D. and his family came from China’s northern Shanxi province in the 1990s. I met him in his residence, located in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. Classical Chinese artworks and green potted plants decorate the living room, along with a pile of bilingual Bibles and several Christian-style adornments. As I sipping chrysanthemum tea on the sofa, Duan handed me brochures about the doctrines of his church.

Foreign investors have recently streamed into Kenya seeking undiscovered business opportunities. Particularly since the 21st century, the number of Chinese nationals among these have increased dramatically. The tens of thousands of Chinese that now reside in Kenya are increasingly involved in a variety of industries, seeking a livelihood abroad. In the faraway nation of Kenya, in addition to material well-being, some Chinese are finding something else entirely different: God.

Kenya is a very religious country. 82.6% of the population is Christian. 11.1% is Muslim population. In stark contrast, only 1.5% of China’s population is a registered Christian (on the mainland). Among Chinese residents of Kenya, the proportion seems higher. According to C., a Hong Kong-born American Baptist minister of Chinese ancestry, there may be roughly one hundred active Chinese Christians in Kenya; however, because of the young followers’ frequent migrations, this number may not accurately reflect the actual situation. Muslims seem to be fewer: during our visit of a Sunni Mosque in the downtown of Nairobi, an employee told us that he had only seen three or four Muslims, ostensibly from northwestern China. What is the story behind Kenya’s religious Chinese residents? How does religion impact the lives of Chinese living in Kenya?

Above all, for many Chinese people deeply influenced by traditional cultural values, there is a basic lack of awareness about other religions, which becomes very visible in the highly religious society like Kenya. Traditional Chinese culture draws heavily on the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. Most Confucianist scholars tended to atheist, citing for example, The Analects: “The Master [Confucius] does not casually talk about any ghost or god”. Taoism, on the other hand, is polytheistic, hindering its followers from seeking of one particular deity.

W., a Malaysian priest of Chinese ancestry who came to Kenya about one year ago explained that even though many practices and assertions of Christianity, including generosity and peacefulness are quite similar to those of Confucianism, there is a fundamental discrepancy in the approach of achieving the ultimate objective. “In addition, because of the expansion and invasion of Western powers during the past couple hundreds of years, numerous ethnic Chinese people whose thoughts are dominated by conventional cultural values have formed a strong averse opinion on Christianity,” explained W. He continued that it is better to explore and learn about the creeds and doctrines of other religions in order to eliminate some culturally defined misconceptions or biased perspectives toward them. Y., a Chinese Baptist priest from northern Jiangsu province, also suggested that as an important universal religion, Christianity has the responsibility to tolerate and even accept various cultural values.

For some of the tens of thousands of Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs who are working in Kenya, following religious creeds helps to establish good codes of conduct in their business operations. Those who convert to Christianity are often able to obtain positive recognition from the public. The way that they look at their situation and surroundings is also often altered for the better: “By deliberately guiding us the exploration of life pursuit, the Bible is just like a beacon which gives us light and illuminate the dark roads forward,” said Mr. F., a middle-aged merchant, who trades shoes in coastal Mombasa.

Perhaps most significantly, believing in a religion seems to allow foreign residents in Kenya to integrate into local community more easily. In particular, believing in Christianity helps Chinese residents understand the local culture and lifestyle. In contrast, according to Mr. D., as a result of a reluctance of learning and understanding the local people’s lifestyles, many Chinese residents have failed to assimilate into the local social environment of Kenya. When I spoke with a few Chinese employees at a company on Nairobi’s Mombasa Road, they described how they seldom have any opportunities to interact with locals. In contrast, for the religious followers like Mr. T., Jehovah’s Witness is not only a space without racial prejudices, it is also an excellent place for social communication.

At a Saturday afternoon bilingual bible study, Chinese followers and Kenyans met and interacted in great depth. The event began with two Kenyan women reading the contents of Bible in both Chinese and English. I noticed that most Kenyans are dedicated to studying Chinese in order to use another global language to preach. Afterwards, Chinese and Kenyan followers joked together, drank Kenyan tea and chewed on samosas. Because of the commonality of their faith, they have plenty of common ground for discussion and integration.

And yet most Chinese residents have no particular interest in religion, as explained a Chinese businessman who has been working in Nairobi for two years. Many of those I spoke had a strong sense of ethnic nationalism, which at times seems to lead to dangerous xenophobic thoughts. This seems to make it harder for some Chinese to engage in a sustainable way of communication with locals, and propagate negative views towards Chinese people.

Many Chinese companies are developing localization strategies in order to integrate into the Kenyan market. Like these companies, some Chinese residents have adopted local Christian practices, a process which has led some of them to assimilate deeply into the religious East African country. Living abroad is challenging, Mr. D, explained over tea. The mental and spiritual supports can be crucial in helping Chinese residents overcome the challenges of living overseas.

ge yuchenGe Yuchen is from Nanjing, China.  During his time in Africa in the spring of 2016, Ge took a field research in Nairobi, Kenya where he worked as a China House Fellow to pursue his interest in the interaction between the local Chinese people and religions. Ge is a graduate of Nanjing Foreign Language School, and is currently studying at the Barstow School in Missouri, USA.


This post first appeared on The China-Africa Project on April 16, 2016.

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