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Globalisation from below: recognising Chinese cultural influence in East Africa

Wang Shen shopBy Bob Wekesa

In her award winning book, The Dragon’s Gift, Johns Hopkins university professor and leading China-Africa expert Deborah Brautigam narrates seeing “a battered truck with the slogan ‘Peking Big Man’ brightly painted above the windshield” in Sierra Leone. The owner(s) of that ramshackle in the West African country could as well have been in Kenya, as witness a matatu (dala dala) I spotted on Thika Superhighway emblazoned with a poor, if stern imitation of Chinese liberation hero Chairman Mao Zedong.

Analogous with China’s growing economic prowess, one finds artistic and corporate symbols of the oriental economic power all over East Africa. If you visit Wakiso district in Uganda, you will meet ‘Chinese’, an artisan mechanic who has earned his moniker on the strength of the long hours he can muster tinkering with ‘battered’ vehicles. In Dar es Salaam, you will meet ‘Mama China’, an elderly Chinese woman who first came to East Africa in the 1970s as part of the nearly 20,000 Chinese workers who put up the Tanzania Zambia Railway (TAZARA). At a village trading centre along the Eldoret-Kitale road, you will see a building named Sanilitun, named for Beijing’s designated diplomatic district.

These are some of the exemplars of China’s inroads, not just in the big cities and urban centers but also in sleepy villages and informal urban settlements throughout East Africa and indeed the rest of Africa. The internet has not been left behind either as witness a cyber citizen going by the name – well, Mao Zedong! Those who follow symbolic China-East Africa narratives may now start looking beyond mega infrastructure projects and sizzling spicy Chinese cuisine in city restaurants to what has been described as ‘globalization from below’.

Chinese officials like to refer to the cultural dimension of relations with Africa as ‘people-to-people’ exchanges. This does no justice to the immense capital that the Chinese are investing as a pushback on charges of neo-imperialism from the West. A current example of deliberate soft power leverage is evident in a Chinese teacher, Yu Wang, who can be found taking primary school children in Kisumu district through the motions of everything from using chopsticks, the rudiments of martial arts and basics of Chinese language.

You can map out teacher Yu onto the EAC region and beyond when you consider the fact that young and not so young minds are getting exposed to the ‘Chinese way’ in rural as well as urban setting in both Rwanda and Burundi. This is under the hugely popular Confucius Institute program.

The first Confucius Institute in Africa was set up at Nairobi University in 2005 in partnership with north east China’s Tianjin University and since then, Kenya has secured funding for two more, one at Kenyatta University and another one under the works for establishment at Egerton University – to focus on agricultural training using mandarin. Rwanda and Burundi have recently joined in and at the last count, there were Confucius institutes in at least 30 countries in Africa, some concentrating on university level teaching, others percolating down to elementary schools.

In a recent interview, Charles Wagidoso and Philip Marmo, ambassadors of Uganda and Tanzania to Beijing respectively said their countries were finalizing negotiations with Chinese authorities to set up Confucius centres so as not to be left behind. This is to say nothing of the hundreds of Africans undertaking undergraduate and graduate studies in Chinese language in Chinese universities, whether as self sponsored students or as beneficiaries of the 60-plus scholarships awarded to 53 African countries – Swaziland being the only exception because it ranks as the only African country that does not have reciprocating diplomatic ties with Beijing.

Thinking of the inadvertent China-Africa people-to-people links, probably the most striking case is that of the lady who allegedly sired a child with a Chinese contract worker in the environs of the Thika Highway. Never mind that the contract worker ‘took cover’ and the woman was unable to identify him even after a parade of Chinese workers was assembled in a failed attempt at ascertaining paternity. In Dar es Salaam, one finds a sizeable number of Chinese men who have married African women and are hypothetically living happily ever after. This is the legacy of the tight pioneering China-Tanzania embrace hacking back to the 1960s.

Generalizing the perceptions of East Africans as neatly positive across East Africa would be a stretch. The diatribes of small scale traders who have been out-competed by their more advantaged Chinese counterparts are but a case in point. Indeed, many East Africans are known to hold sophisticated views on China straddling positive and negative attitudes. Still, the fact that many East Africans are symbolically demonstrating a new affinity to tangible and intangible culture such as Chinese cuisine, traditional Chinese medicine and taichi (martial arts) indicates a cultural dimension of China-East Africa economic rapprochement.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Communication University researching on China-East Africa relations with support from University of Witwatersrand, South Africa

This article was originally published in The Citizen, Tanzania on 10 June 2013

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