Going Door to Door in Chinatown, Zambia

zambia, construction

Photo by Flickr member USACE Europe District

Not too long ago, in between touring the Forbidden City and climbing the Great Wall with visiting family, I was able to meet up with Solange Guo Chatelard, a researcher who’s working on an ethnography of the Chinese community in Zambia (Q&A below). I’m planning to go to Zambia next spring, and so I was eager to hear what Solange had to say about life in this southern African country.

Solange, who grew up in London and speaks Mandarin like a bonafide Beijinger on account of her Chinese mother, is pursuing a PhD in comparative politics at Sciences Po in Paris, and is also a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.

She has an obvious appetite for adventure, and told me about her first trip to Zambia in 2008 while working on a documentary about the Chinese in Zambia. She spent months driving around to construction sites, farms and casinos, knocking on front doors and meeting people — everyone from twentysomething Chinese migrant workers and engineers to Zambian traders and South African businessmen dealing in raw materials.

I was surprised to learn from Solange that the largest group of the country’s 15,000 or so Chinese migrants are not workers employed by SOEs, but rather, individuals who came to Zambia of their own accord to look for economic opportunity. They arrive with a few names and phone numbers, a suitcase full of cash, goods to trade or even bowls and chopsticks (as it was in some cases), and they go for it.

For the most part, the migrants have adapted well to local life, living and working like the Zambians do. Life is by no means easy, though. Despite being a welcoming country, Zambia can also be a lawless place. It’s not uncommon for investors with business interests – Zambian, Chinese or any other nationality – to carry guns or move around with personal security for self-protection, Solange says. The situation in Zambia, however, is noticeably better than other places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa or Angola, areas that some Chinese living in Zambia have fled from.

I caught up with Solange at a little cafe near Dawanglu in Beijing’s Central Business District. Here’s a Q&A with the scholar-adventurer:

How did you get interested in Zambia’s Chinese community?

I was first interested in the topic of Africans living in China after I stumbled across a Ghanaian man teaching English in a small village in Anhui province. It was a beautiful random encounter with unexpected ramifications. I had been travelling through rural central China in 2005, going to villages in four different provinces and couldn’t get this encounter out of my mind. The idea stuck ever since and now I’m looking at the reverse phenomenon, namely the Chinese working and living in Africa.

What’s driving Chinese people to head to Zambia today?

Different factors drive different people. There is no single “type” of Chinese person living in Zambia today, rather a very heterogeneous group of loosely connected (or largely disconnected) individuals with contrasting backgrounds, origins, personal histories and present ambitions.

Money and opportunity are important factors influencing people’s decisions to move to Africa, but it would be misleading to think that those are the sole motivations. For instance, in addition to ‘pull’ factors like better opportunities in Zambia, more money to be made, more freedom to live as one wishes compared to China etc., there are also various ‘push’ factors driving people to leave China, such as complicated family situations, debt, and pressure at work.

A useful way of looking at recent population movements from China to Zambia would be to think of mobility as one method, among others, to secure a family lineage (real or imagined): in other words, how best to ensure the longevity of the family line, either as the prolongation or the segmentation from one’s older generation (lao yi bei).

Settling in Zambia is neither the objective nor the final destination for many of these people. Their stint in Africa – which may last several generations – is just one part of the long, arduous and unpredictable journey of a family lifeline.

How different is life in Zambia from life in China for the Chinese migrants?

The obstacles of life in Zambia and China are quite different and pressure comes from different places. While economic and political pressure may be somewhat lighter in Zambia than in China, there is also less of a comfortable everyday social environment where people can have simple, easy, social relations. Anyone who has either lived in China or grown up in a Chinese environment knows that the Chinese are in fact very sociable people, contrary to some of the prevailing views outside China. I think one of the things that the Chinese in Zambia miss the most is the human contact, or rather the connectedness they feel with people who they can visit, talk to and exchange with on a regular basis over long periods of time.

From what I have observed, familiarity and renqing (human feeling), people and places that are welcoming, hospitable and friendly, which give people a sense of belonging, are what people miss the most.

What most surprised you in your five months of living and working in Zambia?

How easy and exciting it was to live Zambia. I didn’t want to go home, Zambia had become my home.

A few pieces of advice for new Chinese migrants in Zambia?

No piece of advice is worth more than the lessons you learn on the ground with your eyes and ears open. You need to go out there and experience it yourself to make your mind over it.

Perhaps one of the more important lessons I learned in Africa was to try and be good to people. Don’t turn your back on anyone. And keep smiling when the sun’s shining.

For more about the Chinese in Africa, check out blogs by Eric Olander and Michael McCune, Deborah Brautigam and by Aleksandra Gadzala.

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