21 July 2007

Kenya: Dream Comes True for Girl in China

Nairobi — Two years after a journey to China in search of her dream of becoming a doctor, she is no longer the coy girl we met at a small Swahili village off the Lamu archipelago four years ago.

Ms Mwamaka Sheriff exudes confidence in her gait and can now express herself fluently in not only Kiswahili and English, but also Chinese, which has taken her two years of serious studying to master.

Whether it is fate or just a stroke of good luck, Mwamaka is on her way up the academic and professional ladder and to put behind her all the years of desperation when her dream of completing secondary education looked like a mirage.

Two-month holiday

Mwamaka is back in Kenya for a two-month holiday, and after a few minutes of talking with her, the girl from Siyu Village on Patte Island is confident of achieving her lifelong dream. Although she had initially gone to China on a familiarisation tour as a guest of the Chinese government, the first few months of her stay in Nanjing city were not a bed of roses.

For a person who had until then hardly gone beyond Mombasa Town, China was a whole new experience.

"I went to China at a time when it was very cold there and for me who had been used to the hot weather of the coast, it took quite some time to adjust," she says.

"Then came the food and the eating styles, and because I would spend a considerable time in the country studying, I had to learn every bit of the people's culture and lifestyle. I could not eat Chinese food because it's very different from ours back home."

But interestingly, she adds, she learnt in a week the art of using the chopsticks. She also overcame the eating and food problem by starting to cook for herself what she was used to in Lamu.

For a person who was used to living with the family back home, there were many things she had to adapt to as she was given her own school apartment.

"The two years were full of challenges, but I'm glad I have been able to finish the Chinese language course and can not only speak and write in it, but also translate it to Kiswahili or English with ease.

"But it was not a bed of roses because, unlike the other languages she was used to, there are no alphabets in Chinese, but only 3,000 characters which one has to memorise before applying. Now I understand why it takes at least two years to study the language because one word can have so many meanings and usages. It all depends on the pronunciation," she says.

During the interview, she is accompanied by her childhood friend Sauda Mohamed Ali, who has travelled all the way from Lamu to receive her at the Moi International Airport, Mombasa.

There were times when she felt very lonely and wished she could be calling and talking to her family everyday. It was worse when she felt sick. But fortunately for her, she was not all alone in the wilderness because in the same locality there were eight Kenyans with whom she formed very strong bonds. They would meet at least once every month for a get-together and share experiences and discuss about their country.

One good thing about the city is that there is never a dull moment. It is full of captivating historic sites, rivers, parks, special lighting at night and even a zoo that always comes in handy when one wants to kill boredom, she says.

Ms Mwamaka was treated in a very special way by her hosts whom she describes as very generous and always ready to help whenever there was need.

She is also special in the sense that she is one of the few links in the Chinese history at Siyu where, more than 600 years ago, the ship of a group of Chinese sailors capsized off the Indian Ocean coast.

The few who survived were assimilated into the local community at Shanga and they intermarried with the local Swahili people. It was from this group that Mwamaka comes from.

"My grandmother's great grandfather who converted to Islam and was named Mohamed, was among the few Chinese sailors who were rescued after their ship hit a big rock called Mwamba Hassan and capsized," she says of the history that makes her one of the most cherished Chinese guests.

According to old accounts by the local people and historians, one of the ships from Malindi that was carrying giraffes and other mementoes capsized in the high seas near Shanga, where the few sailors who swam to safety went for refuge.

International acclaim

Her story has received international acclaim, and at one time she was featured on the CNN TV outlining her history and how she got to be picked to strengthen the relations between her family and the Chinese.

One thing that she is happy to report during the interview is her reunion with a family in another city called Taicang that also descended from her Chinese ancestry. "They are very special to me, and since they found me, we have been exchanging visits and I remember quite well last year when they joined me in marking my 20th birthday," she recalls.

She goes back to China in September to start her five-year degree course in Chinese and Western medicine at the Nanjing University of Chinese traditional medicine.

The history behind Mwamaka's Chinese ancestry has always been known to many in Lamu. Even the national Museums of Kenya has a lot of information about the epic voyage that ended tragically in the Indian Ocean. But it was only after an exclusive story carried by Nation Media Group's publication, the Coast Express, that highlighted the moving story of her family status. The paper has since folded up.

When we visited her home at Siyu four years ago, her mother Baraka Baddi Shee's main wish was for her daughter, who was in Form Four then, to complete her education.

Mwamaka is the only student in the family who had pursued education after Standard Eight.

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