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As Africa Welcomes More Chinese Migrants, A New Wariness Sets In

In a riverbed that runs through town, Kayenda washes and cleans a batch of rocks before selling them. Like most Kolwezi miners, Kayenda says she’s grateful to the Chinese for providing a means by which her family can earn an income. But also like many, she resents that the Chinese are getting rich off her hard work and her nation’s minerals. “The way they are helping is giving jobs, but also they are stealing from us,” she says.

Some see China as merely the newest player in a centuries-old pattern of foreign powers coming to make their fortunes from Congo’s natural resources.

In theory, Congo should be rich, given its vast mineral wealth. But one wouldn’t know it by looking at how the majority of Congo’s 76 million people live. Rural families sleep in huts that flood when it rains. Only 4 percent have electricity.

Life in cities can also be bleak, as urbanites hustle to earn enough income to subsist. Despite its resources, Congo is the least developed country in the world, and it is also the world’s most unlikely place for an individual to improve his or her livelihood, according to the United Nations.

It is hardly lost on Congolese that billions of Western aid and investment dollars have not alleviated Congo’s poverty. Some say the West has had its chance. Yet the question of whether China will improve life in Congo more than did the investors who came before it remains unanswered.

On a rainy morning back at the copper-smelting factory where Wei works, a group of muscular Congolese men swing sledgehammers over their heads, then bring them crashing down upon black boulders. More men enter the machinery yard through a metal gate.

“Congolese, they really don’t have a sense of time and distance. They’re supposed to work at 7:30 but they come at 8 or 8:10 or 8:20,” says Wei, who seems more intrigued than concerned.

Behind them, the three-story furnace melts the ore into copper lava, sending dust particles into the air. After an hour of watching rocks transform into molten copper, it becomes impossible to take a full breath without a burning sensation in the lungs. Yet only the few Congolese workers who handle the molten copper are given protective face masks.

All week, Wei and his Chinese colleagues work side by side with the Congolese men. As is typical for first-generation Chinese abroad, they eat only Chinese food while their Congolese employees place a pot atop the hot copper at the factory to cook cassava flour – a traditional East African lunch.

But on the weekends, Chinese workers struggle to feel at home in a place that remains largely foreign to them. Wei is one of only a few who speak the local languages. Some of Wei’s Chinese co-workers say they have come seeking adventure. They are often new college graduates who face scarce job prospects at home, or they are leaving jobs in China to earn more money in Africa.

But in reality, Wei’s co-workers tend to stay isolated from Congolese society altogether, rarely venturing beyond the concrete walls of the smelting complex. They spend their weekends tending gardens planted with Chinese vegetables, playing table tennis, and singing karaoke. Many are simply reconstructing their lives in China, here.

For many, China’s influence in Congo will depend upon whether the Chinese stick around.

Some Chinese have lived here for more than a decade and intend to stay. But the business that brings so many Chinese migrants to Congo today could one day lure them away again as opportunities arise in other places. Whether the Chinese will be transient or put down roots here in Congo remains to be seen.

This story was adapted from the new e-book “China’s Congo Plan.” Reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


By: Jacob Kushner

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