Digging for Chinese culture in Kenya

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Scientists from China are on the way to East Africa in June, to prepare for a massive archaeological excavation. The Chinese government is funding a three year search for Chinese cultural heritage on the coast of Kenya, in some half-dozen sites both underwater and on land. China is highlighting the ancient cultural ties between the two countries as its commercial power blossoms across the region. Matthew Brunwasser reports from Lamu, Kenya.

MARCO WERMAN: Scientists from China are headed to the African coast next month. They're preparing a massive archaeological excavation along the coast of Kenya to search for Chinese artifacts. China wants to highlight ancient cultural ties between the two countries as Beijing's commercial and cultural power blossoms across the region. From Lamu, Kenya, Matthew Brunwasser reports.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER: Zheng He, one of history's great seafarer's who you've probably never heard of, commanded a fleet of more than 200 ships and 27,000 men. Almost 100 years before Columbus. His ships made a half a dozen voyages from China, reaching as far as the east coast of Africa. Rukiah Badishee says she is the descendant of a sailor from Zheng He's fleet.

INTERPRETER: My mother told me that a Chinese sailor, Mohammed Shai came ashore after his ship sank. He married a local woman and fathered my mother's ancestors.

BRUNWASSER: Some members of Badishee's family have lighter skin. Locals call them the Chinese and say they have Chinese facial features. China was so intrigued by the family's story that her niece, Sharif was invited to China to celebrate the anniversary of Zheng He's voyages abroad.

FEMALE VOICE 1: One day 500 years ago a group of Chinese sailors embarked from Nanjing with a might fleet.

BRUNWASSER: The Chinese culture ministry made a documentary about Sharif called China girl.

FEMALE VOICE 1: Nor would they have thought that 500 years later a child named Sharif, who has their blood in her veins would trace their travels and return to their homeland again.

BRUNWASSER: Sharif became a media star in China and Kenya. She is now studying in Nanjing on a government scholarship. Her education is only one example of deepening cultural ties between China and Africa, a development that analysts say helps China politically. Paul Kamau is a development economist at the University of Nairobi and studies China's economic surge in Kenya.

PAUL KAMAU: The recent surge of Chinese activities around the country as been met with both support and resistance.

BRUNWASSER: Kamau says that China is doing smart PR by focusing on the ancientness of the countries' bilateral ties. Instead of, for example, this month's trade imbalance.

KAMAU: Let's show that we've been here, we've been dealing with African culture and we've been dealing with African countries for a longer time than perhaps most people would think.

BRUNWASSER: Evidence of that relationship is plentiful. At Lamu's history museum, the walls are crammed with centuries old fancy porcelain from China. Museum Director Mbarack Abdallah says that no elite families in Lamu were without it, or anywhere in the Swahili speaking world along the eastern coast of Africa.

MBARACK ABDALLAH: Swahili had a well developed type of civilization. Their houses were normally decorated with Chinese porcelain from cups to bowls and plates. So this shows the highest degree of wealth accumulation.

BRUNWASSER: But the porcelain itself doesn't show many historical details so Kenyan authorities excited by reports from lobster fishermen about an ancient shipwreck found in coastal waters. Athmon Hussein from Kenya's national museums says it's likely to be the lost ship which brought Badishee's ancestor to Kenya. He expects the archaeology to yield a lot of fresh Sino-African history.

ATHMON HUSSEIN: At the moment there is a lot of empirical information we have but this excavation will provide scientific evidence of these links.

BRUNWASSER: While Kenyans take stock of their evolving relations with China, China is coming to terms with its growing role in global affairs. As the patriotic film China Girl puts it, Chinese people are proud of their history and they always remember their ancestors and miss their homelands, no matter where they are.

FEMALE VOICE 1: This is actually a kind of power which makes an ancient nation full of vigor and vitality and unites the whole nation to make further progress.

BRUNWASSER: The actual digging for Chinese artifacts is scheduled to start in November. For The World, I'm Matthew Brunwasser, Lamu, Kenya.