For better or for worse? The marriage of Africa and China

By: TOM ODHIAMBO

The debate about Africa’s friendship with China is still largely an economic and political one. Not much is said about how Africans view and are viewed by Chinese.

If this discussion happens, it resorts to stereotypes and becomes an issue of the Chinese only being here to grab Africa’s natural resources, while offering grandiose infrastructural projects that add little value to the continent.

On the other hand, reports suggest that the Chinese — especially businessmen and project workers — have a dim view of Africans, viewing them as lazy and irredeemable. One can only wait to see how this new-found friendship pans out.

This is why it is interesting to read a book such as Ken Kamoche’s Black Ghosts (East African Educational Publishers, 2015). Kamoche reminds the reader of the complexity of the budding relationship between Africans and Chinese.

Black Ghosts is a work of fiction, but it is also full of history. It revisits the tale of Africa and China, a story replete with doubts, misinformation, lies, despair and hope, but whose ending few Africans would deign to predict.

BUTT OF JOKES

On the surface, Black Ghosts is the story of Dan Chiponda, the son of peasant Zimbabweans studying engineering at South Nanjing University, on a Chinese government scholarship. Chiponda — or Dan as he is known in the story — carries the hopes of his family.

His father and mother have lived for years as workers on a farm owned by a white Zimbabwean. Studying engineering, his father, mother and probably all his relatives, hope he will help them re-engineer Zimbabwe, a land caught up in colonial and postcolonial contradictions of freedom and dependence.

Chiponda leaves behind a homeland enmeshed by racism and economic collapse. He arrives in a country on the threshold of economic take-off from pseudo-socialism to capitalism.

Racism catches up with him. He and his African colleagues at the university become the butt of jokes by locals. They face racism at school and on the streets, which eventually leads to a riot.

The local young Chinese are angry at the Africans for “living better” than them, enjoying better living quarters at college, better student stipend, wearing imported clothes — at a time when such clothes were a luxury in China, and supposedly seducing Chinese girls.

Chiponda has a romantic relationship with one of his university colleagues, Lai Ying. The girl falls pregnant — a shameful thing for an unmarried Chinese woman, especially considering that Chiponda is black, a black ghost.

Lay Ying ends up aborting the child, through an arrangement made by another student. But the consequence is that she is nearly expelled from the institution, as would have been Chiponda if he hadn’t bribed his university professor and the police. Eventually, Chiponda marries Lai Ying with whom they have a daughter.

But it is the relationship with a Mr Wang that is the real backbone of Black Ghosts. Wang owns a local eatery that serves Chiponda and fellow foreign students. He is one of the few locals who appear to be a “true” friend of the Africans. But he closes shop one day and disappears.

We later meet him when he contacts Chiponda. By: then he is a wealthy man, with many business interests. It later emerges that the reason he wants to fraternise with Chiponda is because he plans to invest in Africa.

He is looking for minerals, land, or any other resources that could be exploited. It is this relationship that Kamoche seems to be suggesting that we pay close attention to:

Is Wang and his fellow Chinese investors genuine? Can the Africa-China relationship be free of racism that Africans suffer in China. Is the Chinese model of capitalism better or more damaging? From what position, — political, economic or cultural — is Africa meeting China?

Are the grandiose projects that Africa receives from China an adequate compensation for the natural resources being extracted? Can this encounter be a genuine meeting of equals?

These questions, as well as the image of Africans in China as black ghosts, haunt this story. Kamoche locates the book within the larger picture of the changes happening in China and Africa.

PHYSICAL LIBERATION

He asks whether the socio-economic, political and cultural upheavals being experienced in China in the 1990s and Africa in the early 2000s will bear the fruit of progress.

For instance, how would the Chinese economic miracle benefit the majority of the Chinese when the state is undemocratic? The Tiananmen Square student protests remain the most tragic of modern China’s intolerance.

Kamoche reminds the reader of the tragic political comedy of postcolonial Africa through the story of Zimbabwe.

Landlessness and economic marginalisation are the highpoint of Zimbabwe’s struggle to overthrow white rule.

Although Zimbabweans fought to liberate themselves politically, they remain economically colonised by a remnant minority of white farm or business owners, and a post-Rhodesia African corrupt political-cum-business class. So even with his education, and the take-over of the white-owned farms by the likes of his father, Chiponda doesn’t seem to trust that his country will progress.

Despite his misgivings, Chiponda adores his daughter with Lai Ying. It is as if Kamoche is predicting that the Africa-China ties will come to fruition only if both parties work hard at it.

This pan-African vision by this Kenyan scholar of International Human Resource Management is a wise and pithy contribution to debates on what will remake Africa. It is a book worth stocking for the end-of-year reading.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION