The Young Scholars on the Silk Roads interview series seeks to empower young people, by giving youth a platform from which to transmit their voices. Via this series young scholars hailing from different countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia will be interviewed to share their research and reflections on the ancient Silk Roads.
Santana Muthoni was born in Kenya and is a Sino-Africa relations consultant. She recently graduated from Peking University where she earned an MA in Politics and International Relations. She is interested in ancient African history and in the ways in which African countries can participate in the potential of the Silk Roads.
What do the Silk Roads mean to you?
Santana: The Silk Roads reminds me of a period in history when diverse cultures interacted, flourished and formed long-lasting connections with each other that are still relevant today.
On a personal level, my father spent his early career days in Mombasa and Malindi (coastal cities of Kenya – Indian Ocean) and as I grew older, I then continued to explore Kenya’s history and our interactions with other civilizations.
What is Kenya’s place in the historical development of the Silk Roads?
Modern-day Kenya is part of the East African Coast, where trade flourished and domestic goods such as rare timber, exotic animals, gold, ivory, were exchanged for goods like silk, jewels, perfumes, and porcelain.
Unfortunately, the slave trade was also a part of these commercial exchanges. This raises the unavoidable fact that the Silk Roads that connected to the Kenyan region and wider Eastern African coastline were part of a slave trade that tore families and communities apart.
The Silk Roads through its maritime network also allowed for the exchange of ideas and cultures and this heavily influenced the evolution of Bantu languages like Swahili, one of Kenya’s two official languages today, which borrows phrases from Arabic, Persian and European languages.
How do you evaluate this tension between the benefits of trade that the Silk Roads has brought and the painful memories of slavery?
Well, the Maritime Silk Roads continues to be a focus for Kenya, however, one cannot ignore the fact that interactions on the Silk Roads have not always been without difficulties, especially where language barriers exist, and cultural misunderstandings occur.
Moving forward, therefore, the Silk Roads should work to maximally benefit and balance the gains across the communities they serve.
Have you previously engaged in an activity or contributed to the wider dialogue concerning the Silk Roads?
I co-founded “Semezane”, the name of which is derived from the Swahili word, Semezane, meaning let us talk. It is a platform through which African youth engage in person and online to learn more about our common history, both oral and documented, to help us trace and know more about our roots. We endeavor to be a space where our members have diverse conversations, host events on current affairs and work on professional and passion projects together.
Promoting a deeper understanding of the past and how this influences the present seems very much in the spirit of the ancient Silk Roads.
That sounds like a fantastic project. I cannot help but feel that many of the cultural misunderstandings you mentioned earlier are the result of a lack of accurate historical knowledge.
Exactly. Over the past 7 months, we’ve been constantly realizing that there is so much of our African history that we are unaware of, that is absent in our history books, curricula, and museums. Thus, we are excited to be working on launching Semezane 2.0, which aims to fill that gap by integrating sound research and technology to digitize our archives and projects, while also expanding our reach.
I look forward to learning more about this initiative.
Finally, how do you think young people can get more involved in activities relating to the Silk Roads?
Youth should learn more about the Silk Roads from older family members who are rich with knowledge of history and tradition, then document and disseminate it, to create more indigenous pools of knowledge on how these routes operated, their impact and how this affects modern life. It is vital for youth to have agency over how history and stories on the Silk Roads are told and preserved for future generations.
In a world where our cultural differences are constantly used to divide us, it is important to know and understand what unites us as people. In the context of globalization, most of us trace our roots to different countries and regions and this is what makes us whole, it is what makes us, us.
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