Kalifa Feika swapped Sierra Leone for southern China four years ago, determined to manufacture his fortune in the factory of the world.
“The US, you go there on holiday, but to look for money, it is here,” said the 44-year-old evangelical entrepreneur, who grew up in Kenema, but now resides in a quarter of Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, known as Little Africa.
For at least 20 years, dealmakers and dreamers from across Africa have been flocking to the area around Dengfeng village, an inner-city trading hub that teems with factory outlets hawking every conceivable made-in-China product, from prayer mats and popcorn machines to police uniforms and political propaganda.
At its peak, about a decade ago, tens of thousands of Africans reputedly lived here, all hoping to repatriate a slice of the economic miracle that has made China the second-largest economy on Earth. Baohan Street, Little Africa’s main drag, buzzed with Malian merchants and snappily dressed Congolese sapeurs.
“You would feel you were in Africa,” said Moustapha Dieng, the leader of Guangzhou’s Senegalese community, whose office overlooks the place some locals call “Chocolate City.”
Over the past few years though, the life has started to drain from Little Africa after Chinese authorities tightened visa rules and cracked down on overstayers amid a surge in xenophobia some blame on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) increasingly jingoistic tone.
Today, a Chinese flag and troops brandishing automatic weapons and claw-like man-catchers keep watch over the community’s recently reurbanised main square.
Economic crises and changes have also slowed the African influx, with some low-end manufacturers — and with them their African customers — moving to south and southeast Asia as Chinese labor costs rise.
Dieng, who arrived in 2003, said the number of permanent Senegalese residents has halved over the past decade to about 150 now. The Malian and Congolese communities have seen similar drops.
“Before it was Africa City. Now it is Africa Village,” he said.
The downturn has led many to predict the demise of what was once considered Asia’s largest African community. Police have said only about 15,000 Africans now live in Guangzhou, but while Little Africa might be down, it is far from out.
Some communities are holding their ground, while others appear to be growing. Each Sunday, Guangzhou’s 19th-century Sacred Heart cathedral fills with Nigerian and Kenyan Catholics seeking spiritual succor at its English-language Mass.
Traders from the Ivory Coast have said their nation’s citizens are arriving in greater numbers.
Angola, despite facing its worst economic slump since its civil war ended in 2002, has also been sending reinforcements, opening a consulate there in 2016 to support its citizens.
“This feels like home now,” said Antonio Jose, 42, a furniture dealer from Luanda who first came in 2010 and now furnishes offices across Angola’s capital with Chinese tables and chairs.
Jose said Guangzhou’s unrivaled appeal is its unbeatable range of products and prices: “If you want it done cheap, they do it cheap. If you want it expensive, they’ll do it expensive. It just depends on the size of your pocket.”
One recent morning, Jose embarked on his latest shopping spree, distributing smiles and “bom dias [good days]” to compatriots he passed in the street: “We’re all black so it’s hard to know who’s who, but when I hear someone speaking Portuguese I like to say, ‘Good morning. How’s it going?’”
“They’ll say: ‘Oh, you’re from Luanda? Which part?’ ‘Ah, I’m from Benguela province.’ ‘Oh, so am I.’ And there you have it — you’ve made a new friend. It makes you feel a little bit loved,” he said.
The Dengfeng Hotel, a gloomy 160-yuan-a-night (US$25.44) guesthouse at Little Africa’s center, is a favorite haunt for Angolan callers.
Stores on its ground floor offer guests a bewildering mix of products that can be sold for a markup back home: outboard motors and pirate Nollywood movies, corn threshers and sex toys, nail polish machines and T-shirts celebrating African democracy with slogans such as “#GAMBIA HAS DECIDED.”
The hotel’s walls are plastered with Portuguese-language posters offering to transport all of the above and more to customers in Africa’s largest Lusophone nations, Angola and Mozambique: “Safe! Fast! Your satisfaction is our success!”
As darkness fell, Amelia de Carvalho and Catarina Antonio, two Angolan mothers-of-four, sat in the lobby shooting the breeze, having arrived to find their hotel of choice completely full.
“We’re on the waiting list. If anyone leaves, they’ll give us a room,” said Carvalho, 44, who had flown in from Luanda, via Addis Ababa, on one of three direct flights linking Africa and Guangzhou.
As they waited to check in, the two born-again Christians discussed their families, their faith — “Do the Chinese have churches?” — and, crucially, their finances.
“Has it really gone up?” a third Angolan guest inquired about the exchange rate between the US dollar and Angola’s notoriously erratic kwanza.
“It’s gone up,” Carvalho said grimly. “Yesterday it was 44,500. Today it looks like it’s 46.”
Carvalho said language, as well as cash, was her biggest headache when she first came to buy clothes and footwear in 2009: “I couldn’t speak any English, let alone Chinese.”
“But then I started to learn a bit of English: ‘How much this one?’ ‘This no good.’ ‘No this material.’ And I started to figure things out,” she said.
“We really like China,” she added. “This is where we get our bread to take home.”
Not all those passing through Little Africa seek financial betterment; some just hope to stay alive.
Anselme Khandi Mabiala was a church youth leader in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, until being forced to flee after a crackdown on followers of the evangelical leader Paul Joseph Mukungubila.
“People were looking for me,” said Mabiala, 38, who now lives in Guangzhou with his partner, Elysee Bwati and their 14-month-old China-born son, Parfait. “I’m a refugee.”
Mabiala said he is thankful for his Asian shelter, but admitted the cost of living and widespread racial prejudice make life a struggle: “Some Chinese, if they don’t know you, they don’t like you.”
Felly Mwamba, a Congolese leader, blamed negative attitudes towards the African community on Chinese media reports that unfairly cast Little Africa as a den of iniquity.
“I don’t care what people say,” he said. “I know myself ... and what is my mission.”
Dieng argued Little Africa’s biggest problem is financial. A calendar hanging from his office wall carries the phrase: “Large Riches and Honor.”
However, Dieng said profits are increasingly elusive because of rising prices and increased competition from Chinese traders who take their products to Africa themselves.
“We know it’s the end,” he said.
Feika, who had studied theology before heading east to deal in Chinese denim, was more bullish.
Integrating into society had been tough, he said, adding: “I don’t really have very intimate Chinese friends.”
Yet, Feika was convinced the future is bright. Last year he earned an MBA from a local university and legally registered his first Chinese company: “Faith to Faith Logistics.”
“Good business is China,” Feika said. “True or false?”
Additional reporting by Wang Xueying
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