Africa China culture People

Nairobi’s “Kuanzhai Alley”

Author: Li Jiaxuan / China Investment Reference

Reprinted from PengPai

The novel pneumonia epidemic that surged in the end of the year 2019 suddenly froze the rapid global growth. It cannot be denied that the sudden surged pandemic has forced people to work and dine from home. During the epidemic, the domestic restaurant industry that suffered a heavy blow from lockdowns and occupancy restrictions was forced to transform to online delivery business for surviving.

Same thing can also be seen in nine thousand miles away —  African Chinese restaurant industry is also experiencing same crisis …… And I, who happens to be a Chinese restaurant owner in Africa, support more than twenty local families with my small restaurant. During the pandemic, the small restaurant has been accompanying a sheer volume of people who choose to stay in Africa or pray to go back to home (China) in this extraordinary year. This small restaurant and I have witnessed dramatic changes amid this massively chaotic and unsettling pandemic year.

Survival has become the only goal in my Chinese restaurant in Africa.

“Kuanzhai Alley” Restaurant

Epidemic outbreak has changed my restaurant 

In January 2020, Chinese community has pulsed with excitement for upcoming New Year celebration in Nairobi, Kenya. Restaurant in Kenya is driven by the exuberant festive atmosphere to prepare delicious food for Chinese people. I am passionated about eating and making delicious food, therefore, my husband and I opened a small Sichuan restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya. We titled the restaurant with the name “Kuanzhai Alley”, and it has been running for more than two years.

I could not forget the night that all my friends were gathering in the lobby and watching the Spring Festival Gala together. The catchy tune of Chen Bolin’s disco took over the whole place and tightened the atmosphere. We prepared a raffle bonus for all the guests to celebrate New Year, it’s undeniable that we spent a convivial evening together.

Many people describe Africa with the words such as poverty, war, etc., and Chinese restaurants in Africa must be rare. In fact, that is not a case. 

Recent years, the bilateral trade between Kenya and China has increased greatly: from the supply of construction material to Chinese  bank support, from small farms to fresh vegetables, the Chinese enterprise residing abroad can be found everywhere in African countries.

More than twenty Chinese restaurants were fully occupied by the guests during the dinner of New Year Eve and New Year in Nairobi. In the wake of the outbreak of pandemic in Wuhan, people at dinner table were discussing the shocking news  coming from China. Most of them were thankful that they were in Africa where has zero Corona cases and away from Wuhan. However, a news boomed Chinese community in Nairobi in the next day:.

This news was circulating among the Kenyan Chinese WeChat group: a Chinese who took a flight from Wuhan to Nairobi on the 22nd did not quarantine himself at home and dined with friends at a Chinese restaurant on New Year’s Eve. More importantly, more than a hundred Chinese guests also dined at the same place with him that night.

The news, which was not confirmed for a short period of time, freaked out the Chinese community in Nairobi. Guests started to cancel their reservations overnight, choose to stay at home and reduce unnecessary contact with others during the Chinese New Year, which should have been a festive time to go out for dinner. As front-line restaurant essential workers, we began to panic as well.

Looking at the surging confirmed cases popping around the world, we came to understand the fact that it was only a matter of time before the virus reached Kenya — Kenya was doing a poor job in conducting international flights that came from Europe and the United States.

Coronavirus squandered the hard-fought gains earned by restaurant, no one were willing to do indoor dining anymore due to the contagious virus. Without guests in our restaurant, should we still open? Would there be a risk of spreading the virus to local staff who were still commuting to work with poor protection? Although we are small Chinese restaurants, we have two Chinese chefs and more than 20 local employees.

On March 12, the first case of coronavirus imported from the UK was unfortunately diagnosed in Kenya.

Kenya’s inability to combat with the coronavirus has directly affected the local stores. Indeed, pandemic delivered a heavy punch to our restaurant — there were only three or four orders per day. Shutting down the restaurant definitely imposed financial burdens to my family since our income basically depends on this small Chinese restaurant. Meanwhile, the Kenyan government announced the suspension of all domestic and international flights, which means there was no way to go back to China. We realized that we were stuck in a dilemma: we could not go back to China because of the flight suspensions, and we could not run this small Chinese restaurant as usually because of the surging corona cases. As a result, we made a tough decision to reshape the business model of our restaurant — switching the service to take-out model for the purpose of accommodating customs’ needs.

The final decision we made for restaurant take-out was: four local male employees stayed at the restaurant for the purpose of operating the restaurant for four month. Not only stir-fry and lo-mei, hot pot can also be delivered with matching pot and induction cooker together. For the safety issues, we equipped masks, gloves, disinfectant spray, and hand sanitizer for our staffs. We aimed to eliminate guests’ concerns about whether the food contains the coronavirus during the epidemic. In this way, “Kuanzhai Alley” went through the most difficult four months in Kenya since the first case was diagnosed.

In July, thanks to medical workers and government’s effort, the epidemic was kept under control in China. In the contrast, the lack of medical care has imposed a financial and medical burdens in Africa countires. In Kenya, with the surging asymptomatic infections accounting for 92% of confirmed cases, many locals prefer to believe the argument that “the novel pneumonia no longer exists.” 

With two layers of masks and goggles, I headed to Nairobi’s largest textile market, the Somali colony and the worst affected area of Kenya’s capital, Istre, to purchase kitenga for restaurants. After driving through several streets, the driver took me to the center of the textile mall. Surprisingly, no one was wearing a mask on the streets.

Local chef Alex is cooking Diguo Chicken with Chinese chefs
Restaurant staffs are celebrating my special “Mask Birthday” in October

The veil that the Somali Muslim women wear became the only protection that people use to cover their mouths and noses.

Several months later, the air-lines between China and Kenya were finally back on the track. As soon as the airline reopened to the public, a large number of Chinese people swarmed back to China, seeking for a safe shelter amid the pandemic. As sheer volume of Chinese people return back to China, our restaurant faced another unprecedented problem: we basically lost all of our primary Chinese customers, which means our take-out and delivery business hit the slump as people return back to China. Fortunately, the demand for in-door dining increased in Kenya. In response to the ever-changing market, we reopened our restaurant for in-door dining again under the guidance of Kenya government with protective gears.

It cannot be denied that the small Chinese restaurant “Kuanzhai Alley” reflects the life of Kenyan people amid the epidemic.

East African “Tsinghua” graduates come to be a guard

A week after the first case was confirmed, the Kenyan government made the immediate action: they shut down all the stores and restaurants for the purpose of blocking the transmission of the virus and reducing the chances of people contracting with each others. 

However, the flawed policy fell short of accommodating people’s occupation needs, which directly led to a large number of people losing jobs and suffering from poverty and starvation. Limiting people’s movement immediately hindered the economic growth. As a consequence, the Kenyan people not only need to deal with the surging virus but also have to cope with the financial instability as Kenya government stipulated the Covid policy. 

On April 27, Kenyan President Uhuru made it clear that restaurants could open conditionally under the supervision of the Ministry of Health. I received several calls from my previous employees, “Madam, may I go back to work? Please.” The voices on the other end of the line revealed nothing but expectation.

For safety reasons, we decided to postpone the opening day to September. In the last week of August, all the restaurant staff got tested under the guidance of the Kenyan Ministry of Health. Luckily, all of the employees were tested negative.

One afternoon, a kraft envelope handed to me from the restaurant guards. It was a resume from a guy who is currently looking for a job. To me, It was a unique resume. 

The envelope contained only three pieces of material: a scribbled cover letter, a diploma, and a folded transcript. The diploma was clearly written: XXX, University of Nairobi, Department of Mathematics, Bachelor’s degree. He is applying for the position of restaurant guard.

The University of Nairobi is ranked at the top of East Africa, its elite education and rich educational resources produced a large number of talented graduates. It is important to note the the University of Nairobi is considered as “Tsinghua” in China. For a normal family, it is such a honor to get the offer from the University of Nairobi. Graduates from the University of Nairobi are also highly valued in the job market, and their best graduates represent what is considered as talents in the industry.

I was questioning myself: Can a graduate from the University of Nairobi work for my restaurant as a restaurant guard? 

Out of my curiosity, I called the number left on the resume and made an appointment to meet this college graduate. Within twenty minutes, the college student showed up in the restaurant. His name is Derek. He told me that he was born in the coastal region of Kenya, in the county of Krefe. His father passed away when he was young and his mother raised four children alone, and Derek is the second kid in his family.  As the only college student in his family, Derek was his mother’s pride and joy. However, getting into the top college in the country didn’t make Derek’s life any easier. The burden-relieved scholarship is not available, and Derek had to work several part-time jobs to pay for his tuition, which is 100,000 shillings per semester. Constantly committing himself in part-time jobs caused a poor academic performance in Derek’s academic transcript.

He graduated in September this year. Without an outstanding academic performance, Derek failed to find a decent job to support his family. Between survival and self-esteem, he chose the first one. He was referred by one of my neighbors to work in my restaurant. He said, “I really need this job. I am not asking for anything right now, as long as you can give me a job, I’ll do anything, I’m a trust-worthy person.” Derek said sincerely.

Skimming through Derek’s resume, I, however, backed down a little. As an employer, what I expected was a match between job position and personal ability. However, Derek’s professional skills and ability clearly exceed beyond being a restaurant guard. He deserves a better job and has more value than what we can offer.  

I do have the power to decide whether he gets the job or not, but I don’t want to be a “savior” who offer the job to whoever needs it. However, Derek does need this job for surviving. After battling with the villain in my head, I decided to provide this job for Derek. I tried to convince myself that if I turned him down now, he would probably end up working in a construction site.

Every time I passed the gate, when I see Derek works as a restaurant guard, my heart fills guilt: I had turned this graduate from one of East Africa’s top universities into a guard at a small Chinese restaurant. Here, even a dishwasher has higher rank than Derek.

Everyday, Derek shows up with a decent jacket, fine check shirt, belt and light-colored moccasins. Derek is a clean, neat, shy and quiet boy. He is always wearing headphones and listening to something while working. Derek’s work routine is very simple — all he needs to do is to open and close the doors for the guests and visitors who try to come to the restaurant, and check the temperature for the visitors.

On the payday, I asked the 22-year-old what he was listening to in his headphones. He shyly replied.

“A radio station that preaches the Bible.”

Local Kenyan guests explore traditional Chinese hotpot
A photo of hotpot takeaway posted by our guests

I’ll have my next Spring Festival in Africa again!

During the pandemic, all the Chinese staff in the restaurant chose to stay in Kenya and flight with the invisible virus.

We encountered many interesting “dining friends” and “net friends” in the course of picking up and dropping off takeaway orders. Some of them said that we are their “comrades-in-arms” in the fight against the epidemic.

The phrase “I will definitely go to your restaurant to eat freshly cooked meal when the epidemic is over” has become the most popular comments remarked by our guests. 

My friends told me that high-risk areas that contain the most corona outbreak had been approved for vaccination at this difficult time. We finally can see a glimpse of success at such difficult time. 

After gaining the support from my family, I decided to spend the Chinese New Year (year of Ox) in Kenya to make up the last Chinese New Year that shattered by the virus. After this year’s experience, we have learned how to run our restaurant aimed Covid era. Hopefully, after this Spring Festival, people around the world have taken the most effective means to adapt to living with the virus.

We will finally be able to travel without any worries and concerns in Africa. 

We can drive off-road in this animal kingdom, freely travel through the savannah, watch the magnificent sunrise in a hot air balloon, enjoy the magnificent sunset with champagne shaking at the top of the mountain, dance with the Maasai with spears, Hakuna Matata (Swahili: no worries.) The song of Hakuna Matata (the classic theme song of the movie “The Lion King”) can echo again above the campfire.

People clinging to each other, breathing bravely.

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