We travelled on the road from Durban to Johannesburg by car. We lived in the year 2011. In a small farming community we made a stop. At the end of the road we saw an enormous churchbuilding. We walked on the dusty roads. I stepped into a large shop, with a large variety of goods. A Chinese couple was running this shop. A Chinese couple in the midst of Boer and Zulu.

China has come to Africa. Decades ago we heard about the Chinese companies and the roadprojects and the railwayprojects and the miningprojects. Now we hear about the average Chinese and his relatives who have made their way to Africa.
A small shop-owner.
A hustler in the streets.
A fisher who sells his fish at Kisumu-market.
They have come in the wake of the companies.
They have come to find freedom.
They have come for all kinds of reasons.

Lieve Joris is a well known travelwriter, but not of the kind that is hopping from one resort to the next beach. She writes about the people she meets, she shares their life, she stays in their house and she listens and listens and notes down what she hears and sees. A number of her books have been translated into English. She was born in Belgium, but lives in The Netherlands.

She has a love affair with Africa. One of her uncles worked as a Roman Catholic missionary in Congo-Kinshasa. She traced his steps in one of her bestsellers.

Now she traces the steps of Africans and Chinese in their mutual dealings and trade.

In the first chapter of this book she travels to Dubai, where she meets up with two local brothers, who worked before in Kisangani. They have Yemenite roots. She watches the brothers in their trade, their contacts with African commercantes, traders. Petty traders from Kinshasa and other places. Young Congolese tell Lieve that Belgium has left them alone.

But the importance of Dubai is fading, in the eyes of the African traders. Their next stop is China. She travels to Guangzhou, where she stays in Chocolate City, the African Quarter of town. The town was formerly known as Canton, in 2010 there were close to 13 million inhabitants. She meets West Africans who have settled in town, some families live there already for decades. She meets old Congolese friends, who relate of the discrimination by the Chinese. Many Africans live in the illegality, some communities even have their own representatives in dealing with the local government. The Rwandese representative sees the disadvantages of the Chinese presence in Africa. When Lieve sees the eagerness with which people buy goods in large quantities. And she wonders: “Why cannot Africa manufacture goods?”

Her next move is to the capital city Bejing, where she stays with an old Namibian frieds who works at the embassy. There are 40.000 Chinese in Namibia, and more and more are settling in Gabon and Congo. But a problem, according to one of Lieve’s African friends is: the Chinese rate Africans lower than Europeans. She meets a man from Gabon, who left his country at a young age to become a martial arts fighter in China, he starred in Chan-movies and is married to a Chinese woman. She talks with a lecturer in African history who has never been to Africa. This contact brings her to Jinhua where a congress will be held on Africa. She meets a Chinese man, Shudi, who lives in South Africa and dresses like a Boer, even in China!

She travels to South Africa to meet Shudi again. He moved to Newcastle in South Africa in the early nineties of the last century. His wife worked a a laborer in the local textile-industry and he walked the streets, selling watches. They moved on to Durban where they had a shop. In this town also a sister to Shudi lives. The company travels to Cape Town, via Port Elisabeth. Lieve stays with the Chinese couple Richard and Sharon. They moved from China to South Africa to Canada and back to South Africa. Richard and his wife run a shop, four of their workers hail from the rich Katanga-area in Congo. The workers are underpaid by these Chinese owners.

In the end Lieve arrives at her African roots in Congo, where she stays in the guestroom of an old textilefactory. This company feels the competition from Chinese material, cheap copies. They copy everything, even Radio France International! She crosses the mighty river and arrives in Brazzaville where she meets Cheikna. She met him in China. His country of origin is Mali, lives in Brazzaville, trades in China. Many West Africans came to Brazzaville at the end of the 19th century, in the wake of the French colonizers. In 1968 the first Mali trader from Brazzaville went to Hong Kong. When Cheikna and his wife Batoma receive a child, Lieve gives them a present. The famous Dutch Nijntje (made in China!).

Lieve Joris has given a face to traders and travellers from African countries and from China. 

A few things that stay with me after reading this beautiful book:

She wonders how long the Chinese in Afrika will be untouchable and distant?

One of her African contacts said: What drives the Chinese? They do not seem to have any morals. 

Another African contact said: We talk and talk, next thing is: we keep on talking, but inside we are empty. The Chinese just keep going and going. 

There is the old saying: east is east and west is west, never the twain shall meet. Will it be in the near future: east is east and south is south, never the twain shall meet? 

 Lieve Joris – Op de vleugels van de draak. Reizen tussen Afrika en China – Amsterdam 2013 – 318 pages 


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I enjoy reading about Africa. New books. Old books. By African writers. By non-African writers. Novel. History. Travel. Biographies. Autobiographies. Politics. Colonialism. Poetry.

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