Category Archives: Kenya

Thinking about Museums in African countries…

Most museums in Africa were established in the colonial era using the European model, which Lorna Abungu (2005:151) claims catered to the upper classes and encouraged them to “marvel at exotic artefacts belonging to the indigenous peoples of the particular country.” Although African museums went through a nationalization period after independence, whereby indigenous1 Africans were hired as staff and employees of institutions and brought a different perspective to many of the exhibits, African museums still face numerous challenges, ranging from inadequate government funding to low visitor turnout to high staff turnover. One of the biggest challenges they face, according to a report from an AFRICOM conference,2 is how to present Africa’s rich cultural heritage and history to the world while ensuring that museums meet the needs of the local community.

The National Museum of Kenya

In contrast to the focus on international tourists exemplified by some Rwandan museums and memorials, an example of an African museum that has a larger focus on local communities is the National Museum of Kenya, which is promoted by AFRICOM due to this more local focus. Even so, this museum, like many others in Africa is hindered in its outreach by financial, technological, and other constraints. The National Museum of Kenya has a partnership with the Smithsonian, which funds study trips to the Smithsonian to keep staff members updated on the latest museum technologies. However, there are still problems with the lack of equitable access to the Internet for many Africans and the lack of funding for the creation and maintenance of museum websites (Abungu, Monda, et al 1999). While financial constraints affect museums all over the world, those in African countries tend to be even severely affected due to lack of funding and reliable technological infrastructure. Use of computers can be unreliable and slow.

This poses a challenge for museums, such as the National Museum of Kenya to make their website accessible to locals. Funding in general is lacking in educational institutions, such as universities and national museums. Many museum professionals have left, seeking employment either in South Africa or outside the continent, where they are better compensated for their skills. In a visit to Songo Mnara in Tanzania, Chapurukha Kusimba (1996:166) observes the impact of a struggling economy on the local museums. She noticed that “many junior museum staff were dealing with the rising inflation by skipping lunch and walking to and from work to their residences.” Museum staff members were so demoralized that when they were supposed to clear the site, they would set it on fire (Kusimba 1996:166). The director of the Moto Moto museum in Zambia echoes similar sentiments. “How many of the key museum personnel have access to computers and how many of them have the capacity to utilise the technology? What is the cost of human resource capacity building? There is abundant information on the Internet but what percentage of our population has access to it? Indeed, we must keep pace with the world but our funding levels are too low. How do we resolve this paradox?”

A partial solution to this paradox is for museums and donors to direct more of the limited funding that is available to serving local needs. The National Museum of Kenya and its project in working with street children exemplifies the significance of social responsibility among museums. The program caters to local needs by bringing street children into the museum, having them participate in various fun activities and giving them a guided tour of the exhibitions. Children also participate in workshops with local artists and gain skills such as photography. The museum then puts their photographs and artworks on display and raises public awareness of the issue and generates interest and dialogue about solving the social problem. Although the program is not enough to solve the street children issue, the National Museum of Kenya has reached out to the community and opened up dialogue about creating social change. Also, as Fredrick Karnaja Miram (2003) notes, some of the street children benefited from the experience by selling their artwork on the streets.

According to AFRICOM, there are over 20 museums in Kenya. There are less then ten in Zambia and around ten in Tanzania. There are six genocide museums in Rwanda, but AFRICOM only lists one museum in the entire country. With so few museums in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, they must serve multiple purposes, first and foremost, meeting the needs of local communities. As Abungu concludes, “[African museums] must be places of social interaction that teach tolerance and acceptance in the face of increased globalization and cultural diversity. Not only are African museums learning more from local communities but they are also reaching out to encourage the participation of these local communities in the museums and its activities.” (Abungu 2005:154). Although Rwandan genocide memorials help boost tourism for the country, their prioritization of international community needs over local ones may seriously hamper or slow down reconciliation efforts in the future. In contrast, the National Museum of Kenya has launched initiatives that includes the needs of multiple groups of people, most importantly, locals. In Kenya and Rwanda, where museums and memorials are scarce and underfunded, and social problems of poverty impede awareness of and access to museums, museums can serve as sites that bring the local and international community together to promote social change.

2 AFRICOM is a non-profit organization formed since 1999 under the auspices of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), based in Africa and run by Africans, to promote a professional network of museums on the continent. Once a year, the NGO hosts a three-day conference to conduct workshops, presentations, discussions and meetings on challenges facing African museums and potential solutions.

Abungu, Lorna, Lawrence Monda and George Ombachi.

2005. “Museums and Communities in Africa: Facing the New Challenges” Public Archaeology. 4: 151-154.

1999. “Connectivity, Collaboration, and Culture: Challenges of African Museums on the Web.” National Museum of Kenya, Kenya.

China and Kenya

In a well-written article, Michael Chege (2008) informs us that China-Kenya trade has shifted from the 1960s to 1980s when Kenya sent agricultural products of China in exchange for lower-end consumer and textile goods. In contemporary times, most of Kenya’s exports to China are unprocessed nonfuel materials (soda ash and recycled metals) and manufactured goods. Kenya’s imports are dominated by manufactured goods as well (electronics, office equipment, medicine, furniture) and machinery and transport equipment for the industrial and agricultural sectors.

The telecommunications industry is booming in Nairobi and Mombasa because in 2006, the Kenyan government removed tariffs on computers and computer equipment.

In terms of aid, China has become the largest bilateral donor at $56 million right behind the European Union at $60 million. Chege, a UNDP adviser to Kenya’s Ministry of Planning and National Development, though footnotes that this article reflects his own “personal” views, favors China’s collaboration with the Kenyan government in providing efficient and rapid completion of projects. This includes the Nairobi Roads Project and the building of telecommunications infrastructure in the rural areas between 2003 and 2005, using “Chinese equipment of course” (25).

According to Chege, there are about 44 Chinese construction firms operating in Kenya, the large ones including Jiangsu International Economic and Technological Cooperation Company, Sichuan International Economic and Technological Cooperation Company and China Road and Bridge Construction Company. These companies have won bids over local and European contractors because, as Chege insists, they are quick and efficient at lower costs. It was estimated that it would take China Wu Yi company 10 months to renovate the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. “Quality infrastructure at a bargain price,” Chege emphasizes.

China also made headway in the resources sector. As of 2006, the Kenyan government gave China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) six out of 11 oil exploration blocks “with no competitive bidding”. Due to protests from Spain’s Compania Espinola de Petrolas and Sweden’s Lundin International, negotiations allowed them to obtain rights to CNOOC oil blocks with a fee. Other companies participating in oil exploration are Woodside Energy (Australia), Chevron, Exxon and Petronas of Malaysia. Another huge project involving Chinese investment is in titanium mining. The Chinese state-owned company Jichuan agreed in 2009 to invest $25 million and take over 70 percent of shares of a Canadian mining company called Tiomin. Apparently, Tiomin experienced severe financial problems in the 1990s when it encountered protests from environmentalists and from local land-owners in Kenya’s Kwale District, who claimed that the prices they offered (originally at $114 per acre, which they increased to $505 per acre) were too low. Many of the problems associated with Tiomin Mines are delineated here. Now that Tiomin has received substantial backing by the Chinese state, it remains to be seen whether land disputes will continue to halt the mining process. It is quite peculiar that I cannot seem to find any current news reports on the status of Tiomin Mines, except for this article, which claims a transfer of ownership to an Australian firm, without any mention of Jichuan or the Chinese state.

In any case, what I find most fascinating about Chege’s explication of Chinese engagement in Kenya is the position of the flower industry. Kenya is the leading supplier of cut flowers to European markets since the 1980s. Yet, it seems China is also entering the competition in cut flowers. However, as Chege points out, the real threat lies in Ethiopia, where many Kenyan flower farmers have taken their businesses with the lure of free land, heavy subsidies and tax breaks. Kenya’s flower industry is primarily constituted by multinational corporations owned by the Dutch and British. The Chinese flower industry (on the mainland) caters to the Japanese market and is also owned by multinational corporations (mainly, Australian, Holland and a Dutch-Taiwanese company). This link and an excerpt, which I have copied and pasted below, tells us more about the flower industry in Kenya. A more critical examination of fair trade practices and labor violations of MNCs in the floral business, as well as a look at the great paradox of capitalism in catering to affluent consumers who expect fresh flowers year round, can be found at PBS and the Greenbelt Movement.


Kenya and Zimbabwe are the leading flower exporters in Africa. South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia are also major producers, while some other African countries export a much smaller volume.

Two options are open to African growers: to directly market their flowers to consumer countries, or export them through the Netherlands auctions. The more-developed cut flower operations (such as Kenya’s) have the means to directly market some of their product, most of which is exported to Europe and the U.S. In less-developed African countries, however, such as Tanzania, where most of the growers are small-scale, the Netherlands auctions take 90% of the flower production.

Just a few flower types dominate African flower exports. Roses make up 70% to 95% of the exports in some African countries, particularly the less-developed ones. Other top flowers exported are Dendranthema (chrysanthemums), Dianthus (carnations), and Limonium (statice). A broad range of other flowers (not just those native to Africa) are grown in smaller quantities.

Chinese Medicine in Tanzania

“Medicine as Business: Chinese Medicine in Tanzania” by Elizabeth Hsu in China Returns to Africa: A Rising Power and a Continent Embrace (2009)

Hsu’s impressive study is based on interviews with “every doctor in Tanzania and Kenya” between 2001 and 2004. She identifies five ways in which Chinese doctors have been involved in Tanzania.

The first group included doctors sent by the People’s Republic of China in since the 1960s, each of China’s province “assigned” to an African nation: Yunnan to Uganda, Shandong to Tanzania and so on. She notes that by 2001, only four remained. This group was more oriented towards Chinese traditional medicine. The second group of doctors were trained in Western medicine and had worked during the building of the TAZARA railway, treating Chinese and local railway workers. The third group was composed of a combination of scientists, doctors, chemists, botanists and a medical anthropologist, some from China and some from other parts of the world conducting research and collecting data on tropic flora and fauna used for medicinal purposes. This research unit in 1991 “identified over 4,000 healers and tested 3,000 herbs” (224).

The fourth group included Chinese doctors sent to Tanzania and also Tanzanian medical students sent to China for medical training. This part was utterly fascinating and I wish Hsu had written more. Tanzanian medical students had six years of medical training in the PRC and they had to complete one semester in acupuncture. They were also exposed to traditional Chinese medicine from qigong to taijiquan (225). Hsu stated that some of the Tanzanian patients she interviewed insisted on the superiority of Chinese medicine compared to Western medicine.

The final group consisted of doctors who arrived in Tanzania since 1996. Pressures by the World Bank to privatize health care enabled these doctors to open up private practices and engage in “medicine as business” (227). Hsu notes that this is part of a larger pattern of Chinese people going to African countries to do business in multiple industries due to increasing pressures they faced in China. Hsu writes “in contrast to the socialist government-sent medical teams that included an acupuncturist, the private Chinese medical entrepreneurs almost exclusively rely on ‘Chinese formula medicines’ (zhongchengyao),” which are easy to consume but their benefits are debatable.