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NANJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 23: Members of a military band wait to perform in front of the replica of the treasure ship sailed by Chinese navigator Zheng He (1371-1435), at the Zheng He Treasure Boat Factory Ruins Park launching ceremony on September 23, 2006 in Nanjing of Jiangsu Province, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)
NANJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 23: Members of a military band wait to perform in front of the replica of the treasure ship sailed by Chinese navigator Zheng He (1371-1435), at the Zheng He Treasure Boat Factory Ruins Park launching ceremony on September 23, 2006 in Nanjing of Jiangsu Province, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)

Middle Kingdom overseas

Tiny Kenyan island questions tale of the Dragon Add to ...

Pate is not much to look at: a hot, dusty island of coconut groves and unemployed fishermen off the coast of Kenya, near the dangerous waters of the Somali pirates. But it has become crucial to China's mythology of its ancient links to Africa - and Beijing's influence on the continent.

It was here, almost 600 years ago, where Chinese sailors are said to have swam ashore from a shipwreck and married into the people of Pate Island, establishing the first bloodline of a foreign power in sub-Saharan Africa, long before the Europeans arrived. Legend has it that one of the island's villages, Shanga, was even named in honour of Shanghai.

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The story is often told in Beijing as a heartwarming narrative of friendly relations, selling the country as a peace-loving partner to Africa. It's a central pillar in justifying its rapidly growing power in Africa - a presence that already includes hundreds of oil and mining projects and could soon include a controversial $5-billion seaport and oil pipeline terminal on the coast near Pate Island.

There's a problem, however. Despite years of hype in China's state media, there is still no proof of a Chinese shipwreck or bloodline on this impoverished Muslim island. The villagers here - even those allegedly descended from the Chinese shipwreck survivors - are skeptical of Beijing's claims. So are Western archeologists.

When Chinese scientists arrived in his village of Siyu on Pate Island to research the story, Mohamed Sharifu was baffled by the attention they lavished on his family: the photos, the hair samples, the DNA tests. All of this was apparently due to the exotic appearance of some of Siyu's villagers, whom other villagers jokingly call "Chinese." Beijing's state media have claimed that the villagers have "yellow skin" and "almond eyes," just like the Chinese.

But a visit to the island quickly shows this to be untrue. Mr. Sharifu, an unemployed 24-year-old, looks at his dark skin and dark face and wonders how anyone could think of him as having descended from Chinese sailors. "I don't understand it," he says. "I doubt it. We are black, and they are white."

His doubts are never reported in the Chinese media. They might disturb the legend of his sister, Mwamaka, who has become a folk hero in the Middle Kingdom, where she is dubbed "the China Girl."

Mwamaka is hailed as a descendent of Chinese sailors who journeyed to Africa in 1415 in the vast naval fleet of Admiral Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty court eunuch whose fleet of 300 ships and 28,000 sailors was the biggest the world had ever known. His ships were said to have been four times bigger than those of Columbus, and his maritime travels were greater than any explorer before him. His travels to the continent are widely accepted by historians - but China wants tangible evidence that it can display to the public.

Mwamaka was a shy 19-year-old when she was discovered by Chinese officials in 2005 through their visits to Pate Island. She was quickly swept away on a trip to Beijing, where she was feted on television shows and at banquets, in movies and ceremonies. She was touted as a symbol of China's naval prowess, peaceful trading relations with the world, and - by implication - its resurgent future as a great military and trading power. She was rewarded with a scholarship to a Chinese university, where she is studying medicine.

But proof of her ancestry is a problem. Chinese scientists have conducted DNA tests on hair samples from the family, but the results were never released to family members. "Why did they not give us the results?" Mr. Sharifu asks. "We don't understand why. That's why we doubt it."

Salim Bunu, senior curator of museums in the nearby historic town of Lamu, says he hasn't seen any results from the DNA tests, either. And he's puzzled by the persistent Chinese claim that the village of Shanga was named after Shanghai. After all, Zheng's fleet had no connection to Shanghai. And Shanga is actually older than Shanghai. "Maybe the names are just a coincidence," Mr. Bunu says.

Seeking to prove the Chinese connection, Beijing has sent archeologists to the Kenyan coast on a $3-million, three-year mission to dig for artifacts. Within weeks of their arrival last year, they found a 15th-century Chinese coin, said to be a gift of the emperor's envoys. This, they said, buttressed the earlier discovery of Chinese porcelain in the waters around Pate Island, including some with the dragon symbol of the Ming emperor.

Yet the existence of Chinese artifacts could simply be a result of routine trading that happened for centuries. The Kenyan coast was a crossroads in the spice and slave trading routes of the 15th century, and Chinese artifacts have been found in Zanzibar, Kenya and other sites on the Swahili coast. Their existence alone is not proof that the great Chinese admiral landed his fleet here.

Similarly, the exotic facial features of some villagers on Pate Island - including the famed China Girl - can be easily explained by the centuries of marriage between Africans and visiting traders from Arab and Indian lands.

"People all around the Indian Ocean have traces of Chinese - and African and Indian and Australian - DNA," said Martin Rundkvist, an archeologist at Britain's University of Chester.

He doesn't believe a word of the claims about the Kenyan villagers' ancestry. It's impossible to use DNA tests to trace them to a Chinese sailor, he said, unless China somehow has 600-year-old samples from the anonymous sailor. "The alleged DNA tests, if they exist at all, have not been published in any scientific venue to my knowledge. It's suspiciously convenient that the Chinese would 'find' these alleged links just as they are searching for natural resources in Africa."

One crucial piece of evidence could help: the remains of a shipwrecked vessel from Zheng's great fleet. In fact, Chinese underwater archeologists and scuba divers were dispatched to Kenya as part of the research mission. Despite media reports that the shipwreck site was known, the divers have not begun searching for it.

When I visited the Chinese diving team in Kenya, I found them on a yacht in shallow waters near the resort town of Shela, where they are scanning the seabed as part of a comprehensive survey of the entire coast. They admit it could be years before they reach any potential shipwreck site. "This is just the preparation phase," says the team's leader, Li Jianan, director of research at the Fujian Museum of Underwater Archeology.

While its ancient connections to Kenya might be propaganda, China's future impact will be unmistakable. It is a major supporter of a massive new $5-billion seaport and oil pipeline terminal, to be built on the Kenyan coastline near Pate Island and Lamu. Oil exports from Sudan, a key supplier to China, would be pumped down the pipeline to the new megaport and then shipped to China. The project has sparked anxious debate in the Lamu region, where many people are concerned about its environmental and cultural impact.

Juma Masha, who operates a traditional dhow sailboat in Lamu, worries that the new port will damage tourism and destroy the peaceful atmosphere in the outlying islands. "It's no good," he says.

Hussein Soud El-Maawy, chairman of the council of elders of Lamu, says the port development will bring thousands of new jobs to the region but will hurt traditional industries such as fishing and mangrove-pole harvesting. "There are so many negative effects," he says. "People feel very insecure. From the beginning, people were not consulted about it."

For the unemployed young villagers of Pate Island, the port project brings hope of employment. For them, China is much more useful for its economic largesse than for its alleged historic links.

"We just want to have a job," Mr. Sharifu says. "There is nothing in Siyu - no jobs. I'm just roaming around."

 

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