Mon, Feb 12, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Life drains from Little Africa
as China dream fades

Fortune seekers from Lagos to Luanda continue to descend on the area in Guangzhou, but economic shifts and xenophobia are causing an exodus of African migrants

By Tom Phillips  /  The Guardian, GUANGZHOU, China

“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.”

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