Behind the SGR Racism Scandal: The Challenge of Communication Between Chinese and Kenyans

In the last several decades, Chinese investment, trade, and aid in Kenya have considerably increased. Under China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) has been regarded as one of the most remarkable achievements of cooperation between China and Kenya, creating approximately 25,000 job positions for Kenyan locals.

Nevertheless, conflicts have emerged out of this cooperation. On July 8, 2018, The Standard, one of the largest newspapers in Kenya with a 48% market share, released the report, “Exclusive: Behind the SGR Walls. The report raised serious concerns about the mistreatment towards Kenyan workers conducted by Chinese staff during the SGR’s construction and operation.


Racism — truth or bias?

 Without a thorough investigation and analysis of the seeming discrimination that took place during the construction and operation of the SGR, we cannot know whether the content reported was biased. For example, the reporter mentions an “unwritten rule” that Kenyans are “not allowed at a Chinese table” at their staff restaurant, which displays “racial discrimination.” This statement is only partially true. Lisa, a Kenyan attendant, reflected, “We are not allowed to join Chinese people. They like to be in their own groups. You cannot tell whether they like to eat with you or not.” However, Lisa added yearningly, “But not everyone is like that. There was an old Chinese lady who was our teacher during the training. She cooked Chinese food for us and invited us to eat together, though I was not too fond of Chinese food. She was so lovely and energetic. We all called her ‘Grandma’. We miss her so much.”

The report also reveals the prohibition of Kenyans to board the van which Chinese took. It is partially true. As some cars are specially used by Chinese management, no ordinary workers can get on, no matter they are Kenyans or Chinese. “It has nothing to do with racism, but different social status,” commented Hongxiang Huang, a researcher who has studied China-Africa relations for over six years. Additionally, a Chinese worker who has worked on the SGR for two years said that ordinary Chinese workers usually took the same van with Kenyan workers for working.

Besides, the report condemns Chinese management’s refusal to transfer skills. This is not true. Skill transfer takes time, and it is still in process. Although some Kenyan drivers have been trained for two years, compared to their Chinese counterparts, most of whom have eight years’ experience of train-driving in China, they are not skilled enough to independently handle the train. “Two years’ training is too short to fully master the brand new Chinese train,” said Mr. Wu, a Chinese technician who has worked as a car inspector for over twenty years, “It is our responsibility to put security and precision first.” Wu also introduced the apprenticeship system established by the Chinese company: every experienced Chinese technician has a Kenyan apprentice. “My teacher and I are good friends. He teaches me everything.” his Kenyan student said happily.

In the report, a picture depicts Kenyan workers doing push-ups, saying they were punished by a Chinese manager. This might be true to some extent. A Kenyan worker in the operation department recalled some Kenyans were punished to do sixty push-ups because of being late. But according to the Chinese head of the Nairobi Terminus, the picture in the report was taken during the Kenyan workers’ military training, a typical way for the Chinese railway system to train its staff. Chinese teachers were training them instead of punishing them.


According  to the head of the Nairobi Terminus, the picture is of a training for Kenyan workers instead of punishment. However, the punishment has no relationship with racism. “In Kenya, we encourage people instead of punishing them when they make mistakes,” said Wafula, a reporter of the piece. In contrast, Chinese workers in the transportation department said doing push-ups was to keep staff disciplined, which was indispensable in Chinese culture.

What is the truth?

 Since some of the problems exposed are not related to racism, what is the essential account? The report exposes some Kenyan workers doing menial jobs. A Kenyan worker in the operation department complained of being commanded to do things which were not in the job description, such as cleaning, by her Chinese boss. The issue was that she did not like his attitude. It was all right for her if the boss requested her to do so. “I don’t think they mistreat us — it is a matter of communication.” said the worker.

Indeed, many problems underlying the SGR racism scandal are caused by miscommunication. Regarding “physical punishment,” no Chinese staff person would explain to Kenyans the reason behind doing push-ups; Kenyans, who are rarely enforced by others in their culture, misunderstand Chinese intentions. In the case of perceived discrimination when boarding vans, Chinese on the van hold Kenyans back rashly instead of telling Kenyans the special use of the van.

What causes miscommunication?

 The leading causes of miscommunication are language barrier, cultural conflicts and less active communication from the Chinese side. “I think the biggest challenge is the language barrier,” 80% of interviewed Kenyan workers said. “Although our company has offered us English classes since the construction of the SGR, I still cannot speak it well and need to use Google Translate to communicate with my Kenyan colleagues, which is very inconvenient,” sighed a Chinese technician who is in his sixties.

Because Chinese culture and Kenyan culture vastly different, cultural conflicts inevitably contribute to miscommunication. In Chinese culture, managers are used to having a commanding attitude when they distribute tasks to employees. This clashes with Kenyans’ style of negotiating, which leads to discontentment among Kenyans. Moreover, Chinese are comfortable taking directions without receiving an explanation, but Kenyans like asking questions. Therefore, Kenyans have no access to know how to solve problems during the equipment operation,  stimulating criticism of Chinese for their unwillingness to transfer skills.

Besides the language barrier and culture differences, less active communication from the Chinese side is a third reason. “We are here to work, and we will go back to China in a few years. I see no necessity in trying to communicate with Kenyans,” said a Chinese worker who has worked on the SGR for two years.

Improvement is on the way

Efficient communication can reduce misunderstandings. “After I discovered that my driver was always late to pick me up, I told him that being time disciplined was very important in China. During our conversation, I understood Kenyans’ relatively slow-paced life. “They do not mean to be late,” said Lucy, a Chinese girl who has been working in Kenya for one year.

Some Chinese and Kenyans are carving out ways to achieve better communication and understanding. When Huawei, one of the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturers in China, entered Kenya, the company paid for language and cultural training, an investment in cultural sensitivity.

Another case is that of Mr. Cen, the boss of a Mombasa-based Chinese hotel named Golden Chopsticks who set up an association of fellow provincials in Guangzhou, China, to teach new Chinese newcomers to Kenya about local labor laws. Another example comes from Luna, a Kenyan missionary from Parklands, a local church in Nairobi. “I love Chinese culture and wish to play a role in connecting Kenyans with Chinese. We invite Kenyans and Chinese to tea parties,” she said. Another Kenyan missionary at Parklands said, “I know Chinese are helping, but we cannot see their efforts. They don’t go into our communities.”

Luna speaks with Chinese friends

 As it can be seen, communication among civilians is the key link necessary to connect Chinese and Kenyans socially, at a level deeper than diplomacy currently provides.

By Yannan Zhu, China House Fellow

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