Sometime in November 2015, a Chinese female friend, who wants to be called Swift, went to Nigeria for business. She said that business in Guangzhou has been declining and becoming more difficult to sustain. Trying to find business opportunities or new markets for her goods in Africa in general and Nigeria in particular is part of the story she tells about her travel. The other part of the story is that she needs to recover the money she’s lent to customers in the form of credits. But the economic underpinning of her trip to Nigeria is not what I want to highlight here. I’d like to draw attention to Swift’s relationships with Africans, those who are customers-turned-friends. The type of relationship she has with them and its connection to her presence in Africa (specifically, Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria) has not yet been mentioned in any of the studies on Chinese in Africa that I’m aware of. The common narrative is that of chain migration, one Chinese person being responsible for the movement of another Chinese person to the continent. In Swift’s case, she has no relatives in any African countries and tries to avoid most Chinese people when she’s in Africa, as most are competitive or self-interested. Her jewelry business and African customers-turned-friends are responsible for my friend’s travels to Africa.
I met Swift through a Norwegian colleague-friend, when we were both based in Guangzhou between 2013 and 2015. Swift is in her mid-20s, reaching that age that receives a lot of familial and social pressure to get married. Because she’s from Henan Province, she’s considered an internal migrant in Guangzhou (a phenomenon that I’ve explained in a previous blog). Swift moved to Beijing in the summer of 2007, when she was 16-17 years old, before ending up in this city in South China. She finished middle school and opted out of high school, but did enter a boarding school to study business English. Spending much of her time to study English, Swift excelled in the language. She shared that she’d be up at 4am to read until 11pm. She became involved in other studies when she arrived in Guangzhou, but they didn’t materialize into certificates or degrees that she could later use in the line of work she chose. In Guangzhou, Swift became a small trader or businesswoman, eventually finding a niche in wholesaling women’s jewelry (everyday accessories).
Having been an entrepreneur for at least five years, Swift has built up a customer base that consists mostly of people from West African countries. In fact, she doesn’t refer to all her customers as such. She regards some of them as friends because of the number of years they’ve been doing business together. The customers-turned-friends, who Swift is close to or has known the longest, also owe her money. Their debt actually reflects her trust in them, as she’s given them credit over the years. In the house where she was staying for a month in Nigeria, the man, who has been traveling to Guangzhou to purchase goods from her for at least three to four years already, owes her $50,000. Somehow his wife, who hasn’t traveled to Guangzhou to buy goods for her own stand at the market in Lagos, also owes Swift money – at least $5000. Swift said that if she hadn’t tried to go to Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, she would have lost (or, to use her own word, “waste[d]”) that money. Once in Lagos, she said that she’s been able to work out a plan with the man – her friend – so that she could recover the money he owes her. As for his wife’s debt, Swift said that it’s a comparatively small amount that she’s willing to forget, even though the woman has been mean to her since her arrival in Lagos.
Upon the insistence of Swift’s Nigerian (male) friend, she agreed to live at his house when she arrived in Lagos for the very first time. She said that he’s a nice man and they’ve always gotten along well. Living with his family would give her protection against any hostilities towards Chinese people. But, she struggled to understand the man’s wife’s attitude towards her even though she thought she’s made it clear that she’s only in Lagos for business. The wife refused to be in the same car as Swift when they’d go to the market together in the mornings. My friend started to sit in the front seat, so that the man’s wife would agree to take the same car. Once they’d arrive at the market, the wife would “run away” to her stand. More confusing to my friend is how the wife goes around spreading rumors about the husband, that he’s “carrying a Chinese and leav[ing] her alone.” Also, the wife rules the kitchen at the house with an iron fist. Apparently, no one’s allowed to use it (even to boil hot water for baths). Swift was served dinner in her bedroom every night, but she reports that the food was the same from her first to last day at that house. The food started to smell, she messaged me on WeChat, a Chinese social media. While living there, my friend came down with an infection (which she initially thought was malaria) a few days before Christmas, when she was scheduled to fly to Togo, where she plans to stay for one month to renew her visa to return to Nigeria. Before her departure from Nigeria, she found a room to rent at a house with a Chinese landlord, which she will be staying at when she returns to Lagos in January 2016. From her experience living in her customer-turned-friend’s house, Swift said that she would never do business with African women.
The last remark could be an accumulation of her earlier experience in Togo with a female customer-turned-friend. Actually, the Togolese businesswoman, who’s been buying goods in Guangzhou, owes Swift’s business partner in China money. With a second Chinese man, who has a factory manufacturing jewelry, the three business partners used this woman’s debt to persuade her to help them set up a shop in Togo. Their aim was to use the success of this shop to expand their business into neighboring African countries. The Togolese woman would be given a small share of the business and receive a salary for her time at the shop while her debt would be deducted through profits earned from the shop. According to Swift, once the shop was up and running, the Togolese woman started to behave strangely towards her, telling her stories about juju (witchcraft) as if to frighten her away and how her “man” was unhappy with their business partnership. The Togolese woman, Swift further shared, was also unwilling to have a more hands-on approach to the business, preferring to sit behind the counter and give instructions to employees.
There were other stories my Chinese friend had shared about this customer-turned-friend in Togo, but the unhappy times have been forgotten, especially after her experience in Nigeria with the woman of the house. Although holding onto her view that she’d never do business with African women, she’s grateful for this Togolese woman’s assistance with immigration upon her arrival at the airport in Togo. Swift has a deeper appreciation for the woman and her family’s kindness towards her. The woman’s nine-year-old niece has become Swift’s companion (sidekick), following her everywhere. The woman’s mother had prepared them lunch the day after Christmas as well as set aside a plate of peeled oranges for my friend to have in the evening after she returned to the house. My Chinese friend was so touched by the latter that she sent me a photo of it on WeChat. Because she and I have both lived with African families, we agree that there are genuinely nice people in Africa, who don’t expect something in return for their gestures.
Swift’s presence and experiences in as well as evolving ideas of Africans are without doubt shaped by her intimate exchanges with them in Guangzhou and in different African contexts. The kind of intimate relationship she has with her African customers-turned-friends is rare for majority of the Chinese people who have been living and doing business in African countries. The majority of the small shop owners (the ones I know in South Africa at least) simply interact with Africans at their shops, as sellers and buyers. There’s no depth to their interactions.