A Prequel: business travails in Togo

Market in Lome, Togo

“Big Market” in Lome, Togo

This is the “big market,” Swift shows me. In Togo, it’s called Lomé Grand Marchè, reflecting its colonial past. Located in the city center or downtown, that’s the location Swift and YC – with Anna’s assistance – chose for their first jewelry wholesale shop in Africa. Swift and YC were staying in Ghana with some Chinese friends, so they had made a special trip to Togo to sort out business matters with Anna. Bustling with wholesalers, retailers, and ordinary customers (including tourists), there was hope that the shop in Togo would not only help YC to recoup the money he had lent as credit to Anna, but also weather the dwindling business opportunities in Guangzhou.

Certainly, the jewelry wholesale sector in Guangzhou isn’t alone in being hit by a slowing economy. For the last two to three years, I’ve been hearing the same complaint about the difficulty of doing business from my Chinese and African research participants in the (ready-to-wear) clothing or fashion sector in South Africa and in China, respectively. This economic slow-down in China reflects global market transformations, but also various local factors, including the introduction of new legislation to regulate immigration as well as steadily rising wages in the cities and a younger workforce that is less willing to toil in factories like the generation before them. Experts have pointed out that incentives to encourage consumption within China would help boost the country’s economy, but as long as that isn’t happening at a rapid-enough pace, self-made entrepreneurs like Swift and YC must find alternatives.

Not thinking that she’d be in Africa one day , Swift left China embracing the opportunity to see more of the world outside her country. Certainly, like many Chinese youth of her generation, she had thought about traveling to the US one day, but Africa is where her business contacts have brought her. She’s heard numerous stories from long-time customers, who have become her friends, so thought she knew Africa and Africans well. After spending time with Anna in Togo, I think it finally started to sink in for Swift that knowing Africans in a context outside of their countries is different from knowing them within their own homes. To say that she was baffled by Anna’s about-face after the jewelry shop opened is really an understatement. Anna played “poker face” with her are Swift’s words, as she reflects on what happened. It hints at her sense of betrayal by this Togolese woman she came to trust as a friend. But, insisting that she wasn’t angry with Anna at that time, Swift says that she just wanted and still wants to find out why she changed towards her – how Anna could be two different person. What does my friend mean by all of this?

Once the issue of the house was settled and they finished moving in, Anna and Swift had time to not worry about business. The shop that Swift, YC, and Anna had found in a new section of the “big market” wasn’t ready yet for various reasons: (1) the builders were still finishing up on the construction; (2) Mr H, the manufacturer with more financial resources, who had just been recruited by YC to join in this business venture after he returned to Guangzhou from Ghana, wanted to add a second shop, so a wall had to be knocked down to merge two shops; and (3) the stocks hadn’t arrived in Togo.

There was time for Anna to show Swift around Togo, to have fun. They visited different beaches and barbecued (or, in South Africa, braaied). Whether

dining out or eating the food prepared by the maid at home, Swift and Anna ate their meals together. My friend even found ingredients to prepare an elaborate Chinese meal for Anna and her “husband.” This time

reinforced Swift’s positive view of Africans. One could say that her view of Africans up until this point was that most are nice and uncomplicated people.

Although my friend’s name is on the lease for the (merged) shop, to the public, Anna is the shop owner and my friend is merely a visitor. All the partners had agreed to this arrangement, but one week after the shop opened, Anna’s interactions with Swift changed. When she conveyed this me over WeChat while she was still in Togo and I asked her to elaborate, Swift was uncertain at first to say anything for fear that she might have done something to have offended Anna, thus, causing her to suddenly become hostile. Then, more out of confusion, Swift opened up to me. She put on a “boss face,” my friend told me. While she is used to being involved in every aspect of her business, she couldn’t understand why Anna only sits behind the counter and gives orders to the other shop employees from there. She wouldn’t even greet any customers, Swift grumbled, as she shared her experience with me. The bigger concern, however, was that she suspected Anna was trying to frighten her away from Togo, and couldn’t understand the reason for that. It got to the point that Swift proposed to stay in Ghana and only make monthly visits to Togo for stock-taking, which Anna surprisingly immediately agreed to.

What gave Swift this idea that she was being pushed out of Togo? Apparently, Anna had started to bring up the issue of “juju” almost on a daily basis. Having a central place in religious life in West African countries, “juju” is also referred to as vodun (voodoo), “black magic,” or spirits in other parts of the world. (Those interested in pursuing this further, could consider watching Senegalese filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene’s, movie “Xala.”  In an ironic twist, Sembene connects power, impotency, and juju or xala.) Upon further probing for examples of “juju,” Swift finally gave a few examples: “like, one Togolese jewelry woman I know, she paid me a visit. After normal greetings, I told her bring me something (because I visit her country), she said ok, would bring me the next day. After she left, [Anna] started to shout, said I can’t touch anything her people give me.” There were more, she continued: “and [I] can’t give my seat to any visitors because they will put something I don’t know, and after I will lose my hand or turn to very fat. Hospital can’t heal me. I will die in fat.” As my friend gave her examples, my mind was thinking: STDs, obesity, diabetes or, simply, diseases that seem incurable are the work of spirits – “juju.”

In case I didn’t understand the severity of the issue, Swift continued to list a few more examples: “and I should wear my shoes always. They would put something outside of the shop; don’t answer any name they call me; and they can erase my memory that I visited Togo.” But, Anna didn’t stop at just warning her to be careful of others plotting against her using “juju.” She told Swift that she was worried about how to continue to protect her (before that, Anna insisted that she’d been quietly looking after her safety). She “want[ed] to hire a security for house,” Swift wrote me. “She even suggested we should move to phone market, not [stay] in this big market again.” This was something that Anna could’ve mentioned while they were looking for a storefront, but didn’t until now. What seemed to hurt Swift most, unraveling any belief she had that Anna was a genuine friend, was the following: “And [she] asked me to ask my mum how to do something to protect me in (juju way) because my life is in danger.” Given the ongoing rumors around the murder of a Togolese businesswoman, who started and paved the way for others to import “copied” or “fake” wax print textiles (also known as batiks) from China, the threat to her life wasn’t appreciated.

“I told her I am not afraid of anything,” Swift wrote as she recalled the event for me. When asked if she was worried about any of this being real, she said that she wasn’t bothered. She added, “I just think it can’t happen on me” before she turned the question around to me, “Are you afraid?”

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One Response to A Prequel: business travails in Togo

  1. Pingback: Doing smart business or digging a deeper hole? | AfricaChina Diary

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