Wendy Xu Jelimo, an 11-year-old jovial Kenyan girl, is an old hand of stage performance.
At a reception organized by the Chinese Embassy in Kenya and the Kenyan government early this month in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, to celebrate six decades of China-Kenya diplomatic relations, Wendy led a group of children singing a lovely song, titled Jambo, in Swahili and Chinese. She also performed a guzheng solo show with ease and grace, winning rounds of applause from about 500 senior officials, diplomats, industry executives, students, and artists in attendance. Guzheng is a classical Chinese zither with more than 21 strings and the one Wendy uses has 24 strings.
Wendy came from a Kenyan-Chinese family: her father, Henry Rotich, hails from Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County, western Kenya; and her mother, Xu Jing, from northeast China’s Jilin Province. Rotich, who did his undergraduate major in chemistry at the University of Nairobi (UoN), now serves as director of metrology and testing at the Kenya Bureau of Standards, a government agency, and chairperson of the Kenya China Alumni Association. Xu teaches Mandarin at the Institute of Confucius of the UoN.
Xu said that she first met Rotich in 1999 when he was sent by the Kenyan government to study as a graduate student at the Northeast Normal University based in Changchun, the capital of Jilin Province. She was at the time a freshman at the same university.
When she first met Rotich, Xu recalled, she didn’t expect to become attached to Africa. What she knew about Africa then was limited to China helping Africa build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) even when China was still poor, and that Africa did not forget China’s selfless assistance, and played an important role in helping China resume its lawful seat at the United Nations in 1971.
“With Henry becoming my love from an acquaintance, I felt his respect not only for me but also for China. He fell in love with China because he fell in love with a Chinese girl,” Xu said. After completing his graduate courses at Northeast Normal University, Rotich studied for a doctoral degree at Jilin University. Upon getting his doctorate in 2006, he married Xu in China and started a family the same year.
Xu said she decided to move the family to Kenya after realizing how much Rotich missed his home country: when Rotich was alone, he would keep looking at photos of his Kenyan relatives from time to time. Upon his return, Rotich started to work in the Kenya Bureau of Standards. The family grew larger with two new members: their son Owen Xu Kipkoeach Bett in 2010 and Wendy in 2012.
According to Xu, Rotich is very much like a Chinese man. He is the first in the family to get up every morning and prepare breakfast for the family and would hand in his monthly salary in full, saying that Chinese women are good at managing the family.
Apart from dealing with office work and affairs related to the Kenya China Alumni Association, Rotich spends as much time as possible with his family. He bought a farm in the suburbs of Nairobi and would take his family there on weekends, tending to crops such as corn, beans, and potatoes. Only hardworking people get cared for, Rotich said in Mandarin, citing a Chinese saying, “Heaven rewards hard work.”
Rotich recalled the difficult life in his childhood and mentioned gratitude many times — gratitude for life, gratitude for his family and gratitude for everything he has. He was born in a small mountain village in western Kenya. As his parents died early, his grandmother brought him up with his brothers and sisters.
One episode that is still fresh in his mind was a trip to town as a teenager to sell milk and buy maize flour to make ugali, the staple food for East Africans. He fell while crossing a river and spilled the two buckets of milk. He cried in despair. He was later enrolled at the University of Nairobi, an elite Kenyan university, through hard work.
Xu, who was from a peasant family in northeast China, said the couple’s similar, humble upbringing only brought them closer.
AFFINITY WITH CHINA
Rotich’s affinity with China began when he was sent by the Kenyan government to study in China in 1999. He sent both Owen and Wendy to attend summer camps in Jilin Province, where they were well-liked by their teachers and classmates.
“China is the motherland, Kenya is the fatherland,” he often tells the two children, encouraging them to be grateful and be immersed in both Kenyan and Chinese cultures.
Owen likes reading Chinese literary classics and can recite some ancient Chinese poems. Wendy loves Chinese cartoons and Chinese classical music. She has been learning to play guzheng with a Chinese tutor for more than five years. She is already a celebrity guzheng player in Kenya, performing at some major events, enabling more Kenyans to experience the beauty of Chinese folk music.
Owen and Wendy would also try to promote Kenyan-Chinese cultural exchange in their own ways. When prejudice or misunderstanding about China crops up among classmates and friends, they would come forward to explain and clarify. They would feel very sad if someone speaks ill of China.
When watching international sports events, they would cheer for both Kenyan and Chinese players.
Rotich said that there are indeed differences between Chinese and Kenyan cultures and civilizations, but such differences can be overcome by respect and tolerance, just like what brought him and Xu together.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).