Update on China-TZ relations

The excellent Tanzania-focused blog Swahili Street kindly linked to my last post, and brought my attention to some important updates. Apparently, those tensions I mentioned between Tanzanians and Chinese traders in Dar have reached new heights. Seems the delicate balance has tipped somewhat, at least for now. Please have a read of the well-sourced article here.

Chinatown, Dar es Salaam

Note: I wrote this article about Chinese traders in Dar es Salaam for publication a year and a half ago, and for some reason it didn’t get picked up. I thought it was an interesting subject because China’s involvement in Africa is often discussed from the perspective of its political and global economic implications, when for most of the businesspeople involved in trading, those things don’t really matter. They don’t see themselves as protagonists (or antagonists, as many in the West like to claim) in that kind of a story — they’re just trying to make a buck.

I have a hunch this dispatch is still pretty up to date, but if I’m missing some major change that’s occurred in the last year, please let me know in a comment! Enjoy.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – Perched on a plastic chair in a wholesale fabric store in a working-class neighborhood here, Tony smiles.

“Most of the time, the local people are right to you,” he says. “It’s good to have different experiences. You can’t close your mind.”

The sanguinity is a little surprising. Tony (birth name Tau Fu, originally from Shanghai, China) has just described watching an armed robbery at the moneychanger’s across the street, his futile attempt to recover lost goods from a burglary at his storage facility, and the memory of another Chinese trader who was shot and killed in another stick-up.

Like many of the other Chinese traders who are arriving in Dar es Salaam and other major African cities, he is focusing on opportunities, not challenges. Mostly young and male, they travel thousands of miles from home to open markets for their cheap, mass-produced goods. They live in poorer neighborhoods than many Western expats but without ties to local communities, and stay for years at a time.

It can’t be easy. And yet they continue to come – more, it seems, every day.

Tony’s story sheds light on the migrant experience. The 27 year-old studied English in college and began working for the Kangxing Trading Company, a textile operation with its own factory. After two years of work, his boss sent him to open a shop in Tanzania, joining Chinese traders who had been opening businesses here since the 1990s.

Drawing on a mix of adventurousness and ambition – he was promoted to manager of his own store – Tony agreed. He arrived in Tanzania as an agent of the company, conducted market research for his boss, and opened up a storefront in Kariakoo, the cheapest area in downtown Dar es Salaam.

Tony estimates there are about 80 other Chinese-owned shops in the neighborhood, and there is a Chinese population big enough to give the area a feeling of an ethnic enclave in its infancy. There are now markets for Chinese food and a few restaurants scattered throughout Dar es Salaam. Chinese workers staff many of the stalls in the seething streets, selling shoes, fabrics and other manufactured goods.

At first glance, the traders have a good relationship with locals. Sitting in doorways, they slap five with passersby and trade jokes. Some speak Swahili better than they speak English. In Tony’s store, a younger Chinese worker and a Tanzanian employee sat on a bale of synthetic curtains and teased each other about their cultures’ differing preferences in women.

But not everything is so cozy. On the one hand, Tanzanians have welcomed the availability of cheap goods. There is also resentment, however. Some say the Chinese have undercut local traders. Their goods do not have a reputation for quality. Some people claim they have driven up rents in the once affordable neighborhood. For their part, some of the Chinese businesspeople feel unsafe. “It’s easy to rob Chinese people, because they’re not local,” Tony said.

In a fish market on the waterfront, local fishmongers trash-talked another Chinese textile trader, a 28 year-old named Ni Je, after he passed their stall.

“Mchina is no good,” a man said, using the Swahili term for a Chinese person. The seller gestured to a huge fish lying on a table. “He wants to buy this for 2,000,” he said, quoting a price in Tanzanian shillings that is a about $1.50.

Ni, who goes by the name Andy when doing business with foreigners, had not even expressed interest in the fish. But the judgment had been passed.

Ni says he doesn’t let incidents like the one at the fish market bother him. After all, he’s here to make money, and there are people who try to bother you everywhere, even back home.

As for the cheapness of Chinese goods in Tanzania, Ni says it is simple economics. “Chinese can produce anything,” he said, but African customers cannot usually afford the higher quality goods. So producers lower costs – and standards – to the point where the goods will have a market in countries like Tanzania, where 96.6 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to United Nations figures.

The first significant numbers of Chinese arrived in mainland Tanzania in the 1960s to build a railroad. Later, China sent doctors and invested in other big-ticket construction projects. At the diplomatic level, the countries enjoy friendly relations. In 2008, Tanzania was the only African country through which the Olympic torch passed during its round-the-world relay.

China’s presence in Africa is controversial. While African leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda have hailed Chinese investment in Africa, Western rights groups have criticized China’s business-first relations with alleged rights abusers like Sudan and Guinea.

For the smalltime businessmen in the streets of Kariakoo, though, the focus is much more immediate: a dollar earned, a rung climbed in the ladders of their careers.

As Ni put it, “Chinese people like to work – whenever, wherever, we don’t have a problem.”

Weekend jam: Ashimba

Tanzanian music aficionados will complain that this selection is old news, but for the rest of you, I bet this is new: Ashimba.

His music sounds to me like a sort of cross between Aurelio Martinez and Nameless, if that makes any sense. Definitely keeping TZ on my mind on a beautiful late summer day in NYC. How I wish I could link to Ashimba’s song Usingizi, which is the most addictive one. But it appears that this is the only music video he made from the album. There’s a sample from Usingizi in the last moments in the video. You can download Ashimba’s whole album here.

PS, Is this becoming a music blog? Not my intention, but I am trying to bring a new selection every weekend.

Fighting child sex trafficking in Tanzania

Note: I just saw that this article I wrote, reported from Dar es Salaam in January, had been published here on Global Post this last weekend.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Say “child trafficking,” and you’re likely to conjure up images of organized crime and international smuggling rings.

But sexual exploitation of children is often the result of more ordinary pressures: poverty, disease and social disintegration.

In Tanzania, where trafficking of poor girls from rural to urban areas is a serious problem, these are the complex social issues that anti-child trafficking workers are trying to disentangle.

Desperation and families broken by AIDS are often more dangerous enemies than gangsters, says one of the most prominent groups trying to end child exploitation in the country, the Kiota Women Health and Development Organization (Kiwohede).

“The rings of the pimps are not coordinated in this country,” said Justa Mwaituka, Kiwohede’s executive director. That means individual trafficking rackets are relatively easy to break up. The underlying causes, however, appear harder to root out.

Consider Fatuma’s story. A slight Tanzanian girl who looks much younger than her 16 years, Fatuma sat on a battered wooden chair wearing a T-shirt and skirt in a Kiwohede office in Dar es Salaam this January. Through an interpreter, she told her tale. Continue reading

7 songs that rocked Kenya and Tanzania last year

I was sharing links to music that was popular in East Africa last year with my brother (find his alter ego here), and he asked me to put them in a list for him. That’s a good idea for my blog, I said. Only trouble is, having recently been endorsed as a blog that will make you “a better person” by the Scarlett Lion, the bar for new posts is now a bit high. A simple countdown of my faves will not suffice. Luckily, I have deep experience describing pop musical phenomena in a way that makes them seem like they have social significance (see, for example, my interview of K’naan).

So here’s a list of seven songs that I liked that got a good amount of play in East Africa in 2009, along with some context that explains why each shows something “deeper” about society. Enjoy. Continue reading

Leave her, Johnny, leave her: Top 10 things I’ll miss about Kenya & Tanzania

"Oh I thought I heard the old man say, leave her, Johnny, leave her..."

It’s time to sing sea shanties and lift the parting glass: I’m leaving East Africa. For now, at least.

I head to New York City this evening. I have plenty of thoughts about freelancing, opportunities and career decisions, but I’m going to save those for another post. I also have a bunch of undigested material from East Africa, so readers of this blog may feel like I am still here for a few weeks (I haven’t even put up the Uganda and Kenya sections to my Ridiculous Roadtrip (TM) account. I’ve actually been without consistent Internet for about the last 10 days, which has kept me from writing and engaging more.)

But now, here’s something in the way of goodbye to this beautiful region, which now firmly occupies a large place in my heart. (When you’re about to leave a place, you somehow begin to remember only the good things about it; and those things loom larger and larger as the hour of departure draws near.)

In a nod to the conventions of blogging, here are the top 10 things I’m going to miss, each, about Tanzania and Kenya, the countries where I spent the most time during the last six months. (This reflects my personal experience, so if you think something’s missing – make your own list!) Continue reading

Long gone bus rides


Akamaba passes through TZDuring this epic 18 hour ride from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam (really, not recommended — do it in two days) we got a flat on the high savanna below Mt. Meru, and were detained in the Arusha police station for nearly two hours. There was a passenger who was supposed to get down there but refused; the police made everyone wait while they took statements from the bus company people and the passenger. I’m not even sure what happened in the end. My eyes were red and nerves frazzled by the time we pulled into Kariakoo.

But views of vast Africa through poetically dirty bus windows, like this shot about three hours south of Moshi, made it all worth it.

Heading out again tomorrow.

More on Mwalimu

There’s been some interesting debate on the relevance of Julius Nyerere in the comments field of my blog (thanks to the input of the great TZ blog louder than swahili). On the subject, this week’s East African had a nice column about the ambiguity of Nyerere’s life and contributions, check it out. It’s hard to sum up Nyerere’s real contribution to Tanzania, but I remain impressed by his vision, which almost singularly among leaders of his era transcended tribe and the other constraints that colonialism foisted on the continent. I got more convinced of that after watching the documentary “Mwalimu: The Legacy of Kabarage Nyerere” at the Kenya Film Festival last week. (This film has almost no presence on the internet, which is unfortunately not too big of a surprise for something coming out of TZ.)

What do Lil Wayne, Jesus Christ and the Holy Qur’an have in common?

Not much! Except that a guy was selling posters of all three on a sidewalk near Kariakoo the other day. Also, check out the awesome Rambo bag distributed at the local vegetable market.

"You could love me or hate me/I swear to God it won't make me or break me..."

"You could love me or hate me/I swear to God it won't make me or break me..."

It's like they finished designing this bag and thought, "Crap, we didn't include any cpoyright violations. What can we slap on here?"

It's like they finished designing this bag and thought, "Crap, we didn't include any cpoyright violations. What can we slap on here?"