After staying in Nairobi 24 hours on no sleep, I took a flight to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to attend a conference entitled Africa-Asia: ‘A New Axis of Knowledge 2.’ The object was to learn about the region and run into contacts who might help me locate Chinese enclaves and business folks making interesting money in Kenya. Part of my Fulbright research project — sounds dull? But no, it wasn’t.
There’s a weird feeling about being a Yankee stranger negotiating rip offs in a foreign land. In Tanzania, for example, right out of the airport, I fall prey to a combo of ignorance about my surroundings, snakes and eels assaulting you for taxi rides to who knows where, and official bribes you have to pay, such as being an American and forking over $100 just to enter Tanzanian territory on an ostensible multi-entry visa at the airport, good for 90 days only. (Everybody else pays $50 for the privilege of single entry. As an American, you don’t get that option.)
My in-bred New Yorker hate-getting-cheated feelings immediately temper somewhat when I eyeball the shops and throngs of pedestrians negotiating the streets.
Emerging from customs, I meet a charming Chinese graduate student, Mr. Zhou, who tells me he’s commissioned a rental car with driver. At first he offers me a ride, though he says we have to stop at his hotel first. No problem, I reply. Then when his driver comes, and doesn’t speak English, the grad student demurs, and suddenly I’m paying $45 for a separate taxi ride to the University of Dar Es Salaam, arranged by a a driver named “Faranda” (he introduces himself and his services with a flourish). Faranda carries an apparently convincing airport badge and displays a rate card in his taxi to a provincial area I don’t recognize. It turns out my ride should have cost $25.00. I learn this, of course, after I arrive at the conference and reception hostesses shrug in commiseration.
The Dar Es Salaam streets outside city center seem ragged and consistently under construction…as we wend our way through traffic this seems to be the old Africa, the kind where women in bright floral dresses carry pots on their heads and men mill about or walk purposefully toward somewhere. Then there’s the question of my hotel reserved too far from campus on the Indian Ocean. It’s called Giraffe Ocean View and the water view is lovely and teal, but the reception desk doesn’t answer the phone for three days, doesn’t respond to emails, so I have no idea whether I’m really confirmed at the hotel or not. This means interrupting the conference for two hours in the middle of the day to travel to the hotel through chokes of traffic. Everyone is apologetic — the conference organizers send a wide-eyed bilingual grad student Belinda to help me negotiate/chew out the hotel staff in Swahili (I bought a book to learn). It turns out that nobody at the hotel knew the phones or emails weren’t working.
So finally I get to the conference. It’s organized ably by Martina van den Haak of the International Institute for Asian Studies in the Netherlands. A bunch of academics and grad students of all shapes, colors and sizes — the most variegated collection of rainbow faces I’ve yet to witness in a small place — share a trove of Indian ocean science and Afro-Asian research that would otherwise take me years to acquire.
The experts love their terms of art, it seems. When they speak, they climb an “abstraction ladder” like trapeze artists, sharing discourse so elevated I get dizzy at times, yearning for a few down and dirty emotional outbursts and concrete examples of what they’re talking about. The topics include “negotiated identities,” “gendered spaces in China,” “licit and illicit livelihoods,“ “extraverted vs. cooperative practices,” “subaltern internationalisms.”
There’s an underpinning question: What to do about nasty racism among varied groups, along with socially constructed and individually carried out acts of greed and mischief? I suspect that the medium (rubbing of elbows at these conferences) is more cogent than the messages; academics love hanging out together to share their brains. A favorite this time was chipping away at the remarkably opaque power hubs known as China and India, their business forces, “racializing” attitudes (another term of art), plus the usual secretive deals among elites resulting in massive African infrastructure projects and billions in unpaid debt (mostly owed to China) to build roads, ports and train tracks, part of the changed complexion of nearly every African country today.
It’s probably too overwhelming to write a summary here of what went on. I had a “Rambo” experience in a dump of a little hotel. I screwed my courage. I got through the conference as an observer and I’ll hit a few highlights.
For one morning I attended seminars on Indian Ocean climate change and water shortages; lots of arguing about how to jumpstart sustainable behaviors among the rich, the impoverished, and the property and gas guzzling middle classes. I offer a few media anecdotes, argue that industry can be corralled to behave better. The experts got mad when I said language must be plain enough and examples of existing climate trends vivid enough to scare people to death (if necessary). One retort: too much fear about climate change and people just crumple and believe they can’t do anything (good point). The experts are researching just where that fear barometer takes us.
I listened to a seminar about undocumented migrant Africans in Guangzhou China who resort to traditional and “hidden” African healers who spread olive oil on the heads of the sick, giving out herbal medicine to prevent HIV rather than condoms. Many African traders and newbies have neither requisite ID nor money enough to attend proper Chinese hospitals when they get sick. What can be done? No time to sort that out in the space of a short seminar.
Dr. Adebusuyi Issac Adeniran, a handsome young professor from
Obafemi Awolow University, Nigeria, is uncharacteristically frank about the Chinese in Nigeria. “Instead of engaging local capacity, they rely on migration of Chinese workers even for low and medium skills jobs in Nigeria,” he says, describing a case study in Lagos. “Even for simple chores, the Chinese business owners find it extremely difficult to engage the indigenous population.” Language barrier is certainly an issue; but Dr. Adeniran says that Chinese entrepreneurs engage in backroom deals with the government that leave Nigerian workers no better off and no better skilled. Scholars and the public remain clueless as to what actually has been agreed in these deals; I can hear sheer frustration in his voice.
I met some cool women scholars. Rose Sackeyfio from Winston Salem State University, right around the corner from me in Charlotte, is a long-haired, athletic type who loves to tramp around China and experiences much greater welcoming and warmth than she expected — maybe greater warmth and welcoming for her style than in parts of America. Rose, the mother of two daughter scholars, is doing a study of the new influx of African women in China who are attending professional schools in Dali (western Yunnan province, which I’ve visited). “Why Dali?” I ask. Well, Beijing and Shanghai are overstudied; Rose wants to pursue a smaller less studied province and city in Western China to see how African women and Chinese interact and how new global identities are formed.
[A darker view of African identities in China comes from colleague Carlton Jama Adams of John Jay College in New York. Many African professionals and technocrats who live and work in China admit to feeling “in-between” and embracing an “in-betweenness” identity, neither fully African or Chinese. According to Adams, Africans do well who go to China for technology advancement or trading; but those who seek more creative identities or movement within the political sphere believe they are repressed. “If you know how to make money, China is a good place to go,” he says. “But China is very ambivalent about blackness.” For many Africans, it’s a transitional space, he continues, arguing that Africans, especially professional women, experience unhappiness and discomfort. “China is implacably intransigent and opposed to difference…You’re not okay if you’re about to bring about structural changes. Your cognitive or intellectual approach is not welcome.” (Incidentally, Adams also believes New York, his current home, is among the most ghettoized and racist societies in the world. Would love to hear more of his perspective on that. As a New Yorker, I was intrigued, but not entirely comfortable with his observation]
I met Emily Comfort Maractho, a smiling, astute scholar from Makerere University in Uganda. She rode on the bus with me from my Rambo hotel and talked about the rising resentment in Kampala against Chinese shop owners and traders, along with talk about expelling Asians, as Idi Amin did in the 1970s. She details a history of Chinese involvement in huge Ugandan infrastructure projects –the Kampala Highway, power plants, hydroelectric dams. Despite all the Chinese money pouring in, Ugandan debt is high — and there are fears that the country will suffer a fate similar to that of Zambia, which has now lost its national power grid, its major broadcasting company, and soon, its airport, to the Chinese who are collecting on loans the Zambian government can’t pay. More on that later…
Emily probably gave one of the best presentations in the entire conference. She didn’t read from her slides. She outlined and narrated her talk about Asian traders in Uganda with clarity. “Uganda’s local trading economies remain weak despite the influx of international investment; right now, foreign direct investment is low” despite multiple government measures to boost it up. This is an apparent paradox: Local investors complain they can’t compete with the Chinese; many have had to turn to low and medium level trading as a survival strategy; they say that Chinese produce and sell inferior quality goods in their country at less cost and pay less tax. The Chinese traders and business enjoy de facto favored outsiders status, moreso than locals.
“When I was younger, every time I had to pick up the goods for my mother’s retail stores, I found so many shops run by Chinese,” Comfort Maractho said. She added: “It’s not the presence of Chinese oil companies that will change the order of things in Africa, but rather, and to a much greater extent, the many [foreign and particularly Asian] businesses” [that find a favored foothold here].” Resentment is so huge that many Ugandans are arguing for an Asian expulsion reminiscent of the Idi Amin era. The future? Up for grabs but watch out. Another scholar, Joyce Mowoha, from the Technical University of Kenya, gave an important talk on the ‘Mining Resource curse” in oil-deficient Kenya. (More on that in a separate post). I look forward to meeting Joyce and Emily again.
One of my favorite moments at the conference was a pizza and
nightclub hang out with my new friend Huang Zheng-Li, a brilliant young Chinese scholar who teaches in the UK, along with some guys from Hong Kong and Senegal. The music was so intoxicating (just a single DJ doing an electronic thing at podium with a thrumming techno-beat) and a single beer so delicious that I began to feel I could Rambo my way through anything in Tanzania or Kenya, for that matter. An illusion, of course, but who cares? I remember Zheng Li cutting through academic crap and arguing someone’s argument was “reductionist” in the China-African debates, yet I can’t recollect a single other point she made at the time, except that she gave me some leads about where to find Chinese markets in Nairobi to begin the conversation about Chinese-African labor relations…my research topic. I’m so happy she and her husband are coming to Nairobi in November. I look forward to seeing her again.
So now, about that “Rambo” hotel…
As part of my attendance at the Dar Es Salaam conference, I was ushered to the Rombo Greenview Hotel, a place that Westerners might call a “dump,” but which actually was quite comfortable. A bunch of us nicknamed Rombo the “Rambo Greenview” because it had an all-green glass facings, a noisy open air court yard and showers and toilet sharing a nearly always wet tile floor and a single rough towel doubling as a bathmat.
I loved it!
There was an air conditioner on the wall in my room and one of the CFL lights on the right side of the bed actually worked. The sheets were clean. I didn’t meet any cockroaches. In the Rambo cafe, there was a small gathering of albino Africans who loved their food and hunkered down to eat it with babies in tow. Almost all the men wore hats. There were soccer games playing on a sports channel in an adjoining anteroom.
Within ear shot of my room, a bunch of musicians at a bar and a nightclub played the same four note refrain for at least three hours. I thought I’d never sleep, but both nights I slept very well. My rainbow collection of scholars and a Rambo hotel experience helped me understand why there is so much more to Africa than China insinuating itself in every aspect of the political economy. Pervasive jet lag and the discomforts we experience eventually result in stimulating talk and debate, new friendships, ideas to chew on, and finally, a sudden intimacy and coolness that settles on everyone as we’re drinking and eating pizza together, thrumming and getting high. #