Chinafrica

Daniel Aristi

Artwork by Hidetoshi Yamada

My proposal is to make the encouragement of the Chinese settlements at one or more suitable places on the East Coast of Africa a part of our national policy, in the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race.

—Excerpt of Africa for the Chinese, by Francis Galton
—letter to the Editor of The Times , June 5, 1873.



During the year 2011, trade between Africa and China increased a staggering 33% from the previous year to US $166 billion. This included Chinese imports from Africa equaling US $93 billion, consisting largely of mineral ores, petroleum, and agricultural products and Chinese exports to Africa totaling $93 billion, consisting largely of manufactured goods.

—Excerpt of Africa-China economic relations,
Wikipedia entry, January 4, 2013.



Figures are hard to come by, but a decade ago there were probably no more than 100,000 Chinese people working in Africa. Today, there are around a million.

—Excerpt of China's economic invasion of Africa,
The Guardian, February 6, 2011.



'Well, he's my Bo, huh? You know, as in beau,' Pelonomi used to joke maladroitly, 'Bo/Beau, you see?'

Very few people in Gaborone got it. She would still keep at it, though, hoping to break the ice cap. 'Beau' does sound better than 'lover,' she thinks, or even 'boyfriend.' But a Chinese boyfriend? What sort of upbringing did this girl have? What mother allowed this mismatch to occur? Ke ngwana waga mang ene yo?!

1—Bo


Bo Ping, 24, dark and lanky, was named by his grandfather after Bo Yibo, one of the Eight Immortals of the Communist Party of China, so called because of their political longevity.

He grew up in coal-rich Shanxi, on the slopes of the Taihang Mountains. Coal had defined his whole life, from open-pit babyhood to a fresh degree in mining engineering.

Ah, Bo the Dragon Cub. Bo, the Xiao-Long.

That's what the manager at China Construction and Power Company (CCPC) called him and the other young recruits standing anxious at the firm's lustrous, self-made headquarters. 'You are Dragon Cubs and now you've got fangs and tails and wings,' he had trumpeted at the end of his speech. 'Go and build strong for China. Go build Africa.'

2—Botswana


Bo had left China for the first time ever on his way to Botswana, known until independence in 1966 as the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland. To him, a shape of scrubland peppered with elephants down in Southern Africa where CCPC had won a tender to build a dam. It meant two years of exile in a flat, sun-scorched country with fewer inhabitants than his hometown. 'Probably fewer inhabitants than an apartment block in Shanghai,' joked Uncle Wang so he could boast again about the ten months he had spent as an electrician in that true megalopolis back in the eighties.

Botswana. Bo-tswana. Well, there was already something there, wasn't there? young Bo thought to himself back home in downtown Jincheng with Mom and Dad. Departure in three days. Of course they'll have rice noodles, don't you worry. The people at CCPC said he wouldn't miss anything. The pay is good, and after the corporate haranguing one does actually feel like marching with The Dragon into lands of copper and coal.

These are new times. This is the era of pioneers who smelt down mountains and light up entire continents. A century ago diamonds and gold had fuelled the dreams of the White Man—vanity ores you hang around your neck and grow old with, rusting in unison.

The future, he was told in college, the future belongs to the iron-benders.

3—Meeting


Pelonomi thought he was cute standing by the till at the Hungry Lion joint in Gaborone, waiting for his quarter chicken and chips. He had delicate features and was taller than his friends, all smoking the way many Chinese do: without using their hands, cigarettes glued to their lips.

She grabbed her takeaway and bleeped open dad's car outside. Bo was swift: 'Land Rovers look good,' he threw at her, 'but check out new Great Wall SUVs, lady, Chinese cars, half the price and also good like Land Rover. Land Rovers now built by Indians!' She quickly retorted something involving Hyundais and they all laughed at the insult. Then they exchanged cell numbers and became Facebook friends.

4—Chen


Whenever the pangs of homesickness got too strong, Bo would seek solace at Chen Grocery Store. Mr. Chen was an islander from Hainan, an accountant by trade who had decided to remain in Botswana after the company that employed him completed the road it was hired to build. He was landlocked, yet happy. At the store, in abbey-like dimness, the cornucopia of familiar foodstuffs somewhat appeased Bo's melancholy: pyramids of canned Shuenn Ta quail eggs and Fu Kuei golden mushrooms; canister upon canister of Koh-Kae coffee-flavor coated peanuts; big, shiny red containers of Lee Seng Fish's Gravy and Canning Fty Ltd Oyster Sauce . . .

- You went to Mr. Chen's in the morning; were you sad?

- No, I wasn't.

- You can be. There's nothing wrong with it.

- But I wasn't. I needed to get sesame oil.

- Oh, OK.

5—Men


Chinese and African men were very similar in many respects; denying any sort of inner weakness was most definitely a common feature. Banna ba tshwana hela!

In bed they weren't that different, either, except for Bo's uncompromising attitude toward condom use. 'AIDS is one thing you've been scared about big, big time, my Bo,' she marveled every time he would start fumbling with a rubber wrapping, making her feel like she was some poisonous fruit.

6—Hai kuo tian kong


'The most beautiful thing of this land is the sky,' e-mailed Bo to his mother.

7—Pelonomi


Pelonomi Leratho Precious Keabetswe was what post-apartheid sociologists had termed a 'Born Free': Mom had delivered her in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1994, five days after Nelson Mandela was voted the country's first black president. For her, riding in the same train compartment as Ms. Jennings or Mr. Van der Merwe was a normal thing.

As a member of Botswana's upper-class, Pelonomi had gone to school in Johannesburg. She traveled back to the family's kraal in Botswana only during the holiday breaks. There, in the golden veldt, grandpa Tebogo kept his cattle, the traditional form of wealth accumulation in Southern Africa. Grandpa would never say how many cows he owned. 'Only a few beasts,' he would murmur modestly to nosy white folk. 'And the day this little princess gets married,' old Tebogo liked to add, 'I shall ask for twenty-five cows as lebola; nothing less.'

8—Clash


Sometimes, it wasn't easy to dam the Young Dragon's pride.

Bo's was a mechanical arrogance, made of megawatts, ten-lane highways, and deep-space rockets. Cattle-rearing, farming societies he thought of as backward. He had conveniently forgotten his own family's peasant roots, ankle-deep in millet for generations. 'You are like these giant robots that fight Godzilla in the movies,' she once teased. 'I am Chinese, I am not Japanese,' he grunted.

And then there was Serowe.

They travelled up North on a long weekend to visit the cradle of the Bamangwato Tribe in Serowe. The sun was screaming. Even the evening felt thick with heat. After seven Windhoek Lagers they came head-to-head at around midnight. Bo was at his cyborg best. He listed everything Chinese-made around them, from the lampshades to the fridge, and half the vehicles down in the parking lot . . . 'You prefer Namibian beer to your own,' he finished with a flourish, 'and even condoms you use are made in China!' He stopped and braced himself for the response. He'd gone too far and he knew it.

Pelonomi waited. She knew he was afraid, she could sense it. Men. Chinese or African, they're all made of the same translucent alloy.

She started talking softly of deserts and diamonds, of elephants feeding on ageless marula trees. She talked of rainmaking dances, of springboks and kudus watering at dusk in the Okavango Delta.

She fought back with what she had. A fistful of sand in a robot's joints.

He took out his iPhone. She did the same.

They remained silent for a long time afterward, unsure of their embrace.