Business there, life here

To say that the African women I’ve met in Guangzhou, China are complex people is a bit of a cliché, I know. I’ve already introduced a Somali research participant in a previous blog. She’s a businesswoman (or trader) who’s engaged in cross-border trade. Specifically, she imports women’s fashion into Kenya, where she has a wholesale shop.

I met her in Guangzhou, and had the opportunity to visit her at “home.” Whereas she’s extremely active in Guangzhou, taking buses and walking from market to market as well as shop to shop, she’s quite sedentary at her wholesale shop in Kenya. She chats with her neighbors, who are all men, or is on the phone with shopowners or manufacturers in Asia. Occasionally, female friends come to visit her at her shop, and she would visit them at theirs. Other than that, her husband and two male assistants handle most of the sales and collect customers’ orders. When goods arrive from Guangzhou, she assists her husband with stocktaking. At home, her husband discusses with her what needs to be ordered on her next trip to Guangzhou. There is a division of labor, although she’s the one who initiated the business.

Her roles as a mother and wife have pride of place in Kenya. Rather than beginning her day at 10 or 11am, as she does in Guangzhou, her day begins around 4am in Kenya, when her husband leaves the house for morning or Fajr prayer. Even though she employs a young woman to clean the house, and has an older sister, who stays with her, to cook and get the children ready for school, my research participant is up helping to get her three daughters ready to be picked up by the school transport. She looks happy talking with her daughters before they head off. She’s the one who’s responsible for paying the daughters’ school fees and meeting the teachers to discuss their progress. All matters related to her daughters’ education, in fact, fall on her shoulders. Similar to my Chinese research participants in South Africa, their children’s future is reason to continue to seek profit in their businesses.

Sahra borrowing neighbor's space

Business at home in Kenya

In Zambia, my research participant engages in completely different kinds of businesses. She was trained and worked as a journalist before entering into cross-border trade. She started traveling between Zambia and South Africa, sourcing car spare parts. When she accumulated enough capital, she heard about Dubai and other kinds of goods that she could source from there. She’s also been to Japan before coming across markets in Guangzhou. The last place was where her shipping and logistics agent introduced her to me. In fact, I met her in a rather nice hotel that my other research participants refuse to spend their money on. In her view the hotels in Guangzhou are more affordable than the ones in Dubai. Some times she also shares the room with another Zambian woman, which helps to bring the cost down. When she’s in Guangzhou, the Hong Kong-based shipping and logistics company arranges a car and driver for her to do her shopping. I’ve accompanied her to a neighboring city to purchase bathroom tiles and home furnitures. She’s also purchased artwork and supplies for a restaurant-pub that she was preparing to open in Lusaka. So, she sources goods in Guangzhou for others as well as for her own businesses.

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Owner of the restaurant-pub with one of her best friends

Having the opportunity to visit her at home, I saw the artwork and supplies, including her staff’s uniforms and banners with the restaurant-pubs’s name, that she had ordered in Guangzhou. She employs five to six local people to work here. Elsewhere in Lusaka, she has a shop that sells clothes and small electronics. She has a small line of perfume that she’s testing out on customers. The goods sold in that shop, she told me, are not from China. The team jerseys, for example, are from Thailand. The perfumes are from the US. My research participant employs a woman to manage that shop full time because she doesn’t go there often. She used to also have a shop that sells tiles, but because it has become too competitive, she closed it down. The tiles are in storage; when a customer inquires about them, she would then show him/her the tiles.

Her main office is located at the restaurant-pub. While observing her at work, I realized that her family is also involved in her businesses, and she’s the CEO who oversees all of them. Though that is her title, she is a hands-on person. She’s awake and out the door by 6am to help prepare things for the restaurant. It opens at lunchtime, so all the food has to be ready before then. Once all preparations are done, she returns home to get ready for the long workday. She’s back at the restaurant to greet customers or to handle other business matters in her office. On regular nights, she can remain at home after dinner. But, beginning Thursday, she continues to work some nights. The pub’s business takes over at night from Thursday to Sunday, as people begin to ease into the weekend. Traveling for business is actually a vacation for her. Her days don’t begin until 10 or 11am, when the markets open in Guangzhou.

Both these women don’t stay in Guangzhou like how my Chinese research participants stay in South Africa. Because their lives and businesses are in South Africa, my Chinese research participants mostly visit family and friends when they’re at home in China. While their businesses keep them preoccupied during the days, their lives are generally monotonous in Africa. But, at home, because they are catching up with life there, their days are filled with activities. It’s quite a different situation than the African women I’ve have the opportunity to observe.

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