SHANGA, Kenya – This dispatch got delayed; I was in no rush. Shanga (as in Shanghai) hasn’t been breaking news for 500 years. Today it is vital context as an American president plays dunces and dragons with China, which sees time in millennia, not four-year mandates.
Whatever Donald Trump might gain in trade talks, his public posturing spurs the ancient Middle Kingdom to ramp up its manifest destiny with economic, diplomatic and military expansion that began after the 2006 recession exposed weaknesses in Western dominance.
Plunder in a paradisiacal Swahili enclave on the Indian Ocean, which includes the ruins of Shanga and the fabled time-warp port of Lamu, is a telling example of China’s global quest for raw materials, food supplies and geopolitical clout.
Coral-block ruins still stand in the jungle here, built by shipwrecked Chinese sailors in the 1400s, well before Columbus happened upon America. The stranded seamen fathered children whose DNA can still be found in their progeny.
Back then, Admiral Zheng He ruled the waves with a fleet of 28,000 men in 300 ships, some 400 feet long. A giraffe he brought from the Swahili Coast intrigued the emperor. But China turned inward, leaving European powers to colonize Africa. Shanga faded away.
Today, the Chinese are back, bankrolling a $2.3 billion coal-fired power plant project on the mainland. Two Kenyan moguls cooked it up with help from a top politician whose rake-off is expected to fund a presidential run. This is an open secret, but reporters can’t nail down a paper trail.
Experts condemn the scheme. Kenya produces excess power, and all consumers pay a levy to subsidize unused capacity. The government is committed to developing alternative energy. The project would import coal and have to spend heavily on long-distance power lines.
Corruption is rife in Kenya; it has nearly as many white elephants as grey ones. But money aside, toxic smoke would foul the air and discharge would poison fish. Mangroves vital to ecological balance would be cut. And laidback Lamu, a U.N. World Heritage Site, would be lost.