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Young African and Chinese Thinkers Tell Their Stories at First-Ever “Africa Week” in Beijing

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China and Africa’s relationship is undoubtedly close, and has become more and more complicated. This year’s embarrassing Spring Festival Gala skit exposed that China still has quite a lot to learn about Arica.

But how do Africans view their biggest economic partner in the world? What can young people do for better future collaboration from both sides? How can we improve mutual understanding?

As an essential part of the first ever “Kente & Silk Africa Week” in Beijing, hosted by the Global Shapers Community, PUASA PKU, China-Africa Tech Initiative, and PKU Youth Think Tank, the “China & Africa Stories Forum” took place on May 19. Over the course of the day-long forum, keynote speakers ranged from a New Development Bank official to an Afrobeats dance instructor, and from an award-winning documentary director to an international strategy consultant, who, along with other panelists, shared their experiences, observations, and insights into Sino-African affairs and offered inspiring stories that partly answered the above questions.

Tian Wei, anchor of World Insight at CGTV (former known as CCTVNEWS), kicked off the forum by telling her own story of being a volunteer for the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, where she, as a young woman, began to work with African people for the first time. Leslie Maasdorp, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of the New Development Bank, and Hannah Ryder, a former diplomat and founder of Development Reimagined Consulting, also gave keynote speeches based on their decades of global work experience with Africa, politically or economically. They both made the point that Africa needs more structured, sustainable, and transparent investment from China, and all over the world.

Tian Wei

Leslie Maasdorp

In the first panel of a section entitled “The ‘Africa’ in China-Africa,” executive director and research fellow Dr. Hodan Osman Abdi, Masters candidate of the Yenching Academy at Peking University Luyolo Sijake, Senior Commissioner Sandrine Nduwimana, and choreographer and dance Instructor Yoofi Greene shared their experiences working with Africans in China. All the panelists emphasized that Africans’ voices need to be heard first, while Africa should be viewed as a continent that consists of 56 countries which have different cultures, histories and needs, instead of being seen as a single entity.

Dr. Hodan Osman Abdi with other panelists

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Greene talked about having to deal with “bad vibes” from locals when he started living in Guangzhou three years ago, and he spoke about how he built an Afrobeats school, which he has run for two years. He said he can “use dance to teach [Chinese] more about Africa… All my students are Chinese. And not every African can dance.”

Yoofi Greene performing Afrobeats

On the topic of the Spring Festival Gala skit, Dr. Hodan Osman Abdi said:

That was a case of extreme, inexcusable ignorance, because anybody who’s read history and media history knows… I know a lot of people here in China would — and I myself also did — defend the fact that blackface was an existing culture in China that was not offensive when it came to China-African relations. However, that issue having its own history within the colonial era, and having its own impact on Africa itself and African people itself should have been respected for what it is, and it should have been, you know, a no-go area instead of defending it from a Chinese standpoint. I mean there are some issues within the China-Africa dimension that we can stand for and say ok… this doesn’t happen between China and Africa, so we shouldn’t judge it with a Western lens. However, some issues, I think, don’t fall within the spread of this bracket, so I think I’ll leave it there.

In the “China-Africa’s Leapfrog” session, Leslie Maasdorp, China Africa Project founder Eric Olander, AI PhD candidate Patricia Dalle, and MALLHAHA founder and “One Belt Technology” CEO David Gao discussed collaborative technology opportunities. Since smartphones are already incredibly cheap in Africa, Dalle believes that working with local telecom operators and building new data hubs to help Africans get on the internet will be a huge opportunity.

Olander also raised the point that Kenyan, Ugandan, Ghanaian, and other nation’s policymakers insist that surging debts from China for building vital infrastructure will ultimately spark economic growth, and will give young people employment opportunities. Gao believes that small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) will play a bigger role in Africa’s future.

“China-Africa’s Leapfrog” session

The last panel was “China-Africa New Economy,” which brought together Shantha Bloemen, founding director of Locomotion Africa, a social enterprise for creating renewable transport solutions for rural and peri-urban communities; senior strategy consultant Josha Yua; Michelle Xiong from Guilin Pharma, a member of Fosun Pharma; and Yipeng Zhang, founder of Rooibos tea company Smash a Cup and Big Small Coffee.

Xiong’s company has supplied over 100 million vials of Artesun — an injectable variant of an anti-malarial drug derived from a discovery by Nobel-winning researcher Tu Youyou — to Africa, which is estimated to have saved 20 million lives.

As a graduate of the University of Western Cape, Zhang shared her own experiences blending into the local culture, encouraging more young Chinese to study in Africa and to learn more about the continent so that we can eventually rid ourselves of ignorance about Arica.

Hannah Ryder moderating the “China-Africa New Economy” panel

For the last breakout session of the day, Zhang Yong and Dr. Hodan Osman Abdi screened a six-episode documentary they co-directed, Africans in Yiwu (非洲人在义乌),” leading a discussion afterwards.

The six episodes of “Africans in Yiwu” cover trade, marriage, education, music and arts, public engagement, and food culture, following the lives of 18 Africans living in Yiwu, the world’s largest small commodities market.

According to Dr. Hoda, there are at least thirty thousand Africans living in the city, and an estimated 100 thousand visitors from Africa every year. The documentary received local government support with little censorship. “Only religion is not allowed to be discussed or mentioned at all,” Dr. Hoda said.

It was initially broadcast on State-run TV network CCTV, and is still available on video platforms iQIYI, Tencent, and YOUKU. Dr. Hodan found that the New Media Short Documentary model, which he adopted for “Africans in Yiwu,” and which is common across popular social media, is quite useful for giving global audiences a perception of real African people and their lives, as well as for increasing people’s attention to the important questions while decreasing misconceptions.

We can never imagine what others’ lives, countries, or cultures are like until we see them and hear them for ourselves. Only then can we have a fair and mutually respectful dialogue. Africa Week, organized by Zahra Baitie, Miatta Momoh, Mikka Kabugo, Nimo Wanjau, and many more young members of the Kente & Silk group, was an excellent beginning to a long journey.

All photos courtesy Kente & Silk

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Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van