Two weeks ago, a Chinese man was filmed whipping a Kenyan waiter at a restaurant in Nairobi for reporting to work late. Reports said police arrested the perpetrator, Deng Hailan, who worked at the restaurant as a chef without a work permit.
This colleagues, chefs Chang Yueping and Ou Qiang, had expired visas and Yu ling, a cashier, was in the country with a visitor’s visa without a work permit.
Kenyan activists marched to the restaurant demanding its closure.
I write this on February 18, exactly 63 years after Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi, leader of the armed Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) in the Mau Mau war against British colonialism was hanged and buried in an unmarked grave. The colonialists didn’t want Kimathi’s grave to become a shrine. A defiant Kimathi was led to the gallows with words that have inspired generations: “It is better to die on my feet than live on my knees under colonial rule”.
On July 11, 1990, five months after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela visited Kenya. At a rally organised by former President Daniel Moi, Mandela said he had come to pay homage to Kimathi and other freedom fighters. He asked to be taken to Kimathi’s grave and introduced to his wife, Mukami. None of the requests was honoured. Mandela spoke poignantly of being spurred on against apartheid by peasant fighters such as Kimathi and the Mau Mau who he described as “candles in his long and hard war against injustice” in his 27 years of imprisonment.
Mandela was Commander-in-Chief of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), Umkhonto wa Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation, founded after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 when police fired into a crowd protesting pass laws, killing 249 including 29 children.
Pass laws required black people to carry pass books and live in designated areas. In Kenya the Kipande was introduced in 1918 with similar rules. Black people had to wear the Kipande around their necks like a dog collar. Both the passbook and Kipande carried personal details such as ethnic community and employment history.
When Mandela said he considered it an honour as a fellow freedom fighter to pay respect to Kimathi at his grave, did he not know a ban outlawing the Mau Mau and branding them terrorists by the colonialists had never been lifted by the independence governments? It took former President Mwai Kibaki’s efforts in 2013 to lift the ban, recognise the Mau Mau as freedom fighters and build a monument in honour of the Field Marshal on Nairobi’s Kimathi Street.
February 18, the anniversary of Kimathi’s hanging is therefore a good day to reflect on what he died on his feet for.
In 2015, waiters at a Nairobi restaurant reported black people were barred from access by the Chinese management, invoking memories of the colonial Kipande. It was revealed the Chinese were operating without work permits. They were deported.
If the waiters had not reported about the restaurant barring of blacks and if in the recent incident — canning of the Kenyan waiter had not been filmed — would the authorities have ever known that Chinese nationals were operating in Kenya without work permits?
The standard response seems to be a racist act, followed by discovery of the racists’ lack of work permits, and deportation.
Reports said the Chinese man who whipped the waiter made the whip himself. Whips have been made for specific use on black people in the past. The kiboko, made out of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide was fashioned by slave traders to whip black slaves.
In 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said 1,300 Kenyans were languishing in foreign jails, mostly in China.
Deportation is not a potent deterrence. Foreign offenders should be tried, like any other offenders and deported after serving their jail sentences.
Let’s remember, we consider Nelson Mandela and Dedan Kimathi heroes because of fighting racist discrimination.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:[email protected]