Talking China in Africa at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York

Literary festivals are usually a disappointment. Even when a cherished writer is speaking, the chances are you’d be better off spending an hour simply reading their work rather than going along to watch in person as they try to navigate another stilted panel discussion. But sometimes a debate breaks out that is worth tuning in to.

Last week was the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, and this year the “country focus” was on this blog’s number one favourite country of all: Africa. This was very much in keeping with the widely accepted notion that Africa is “having a moment” on the Western literary and cultural scene.

These days, the American audiences at such events tend to be reasonably civil and well-behaved. We have learned “How To Write About Africa” and we understand “The Dangers of a Single Story” and we realize we must avoid participating in “The White-Savior-Industrial Complex” and we’re determined to be better than all that.

And yet, in one of the Q&As, some guy in the audience asked Yvonne Owuor, Alain Mabanckou and Adéwálé Àjàdí to account for ways in which the “voice of the village” came through in their work, while congratulating the three on the long-awaited emergence of “African voices.”

Yvonne Owuor: “The voices have always been there. The West is only taking interest in it now because China is interested in Africa. That’s the reality. We were never interesting until we improved China’s economy. And our books are selling. That’s why we’re here. Nobody’s doing anybody a favour.”

There was strictly no China on the PEN World Voices menu for Africa, yet here it was once again intruding upon proceedings, just as it had earlier in the week when Achille Mbembe engaged in a broad-ranging debate with Aminatta Forna, Boubacar Boris Diop,Lola Shoneyin and Billy Kahora.

In Mbembe’s opening provocation, he responded to the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa by saying: “I do not believe that any African is a foreigner in Africa, notwithstanding our national boundaries. Nor should any person of African descent [be considered a foreigner], or anybody else — African or not — who is willing to tie his or her fate to ours. That is why, for instance, I fully support the current wave of Chinese immigration in our cities. One big thing that has happened in the continent of late is that each and every single major African city has its Chinese quarters. We are told that in 20 years time we will have somewhere between 2 million and 2.5 million Chinese immigrants to the continent, and I think that is a very good thing.”

Both Lola Shoneyin and Boubacar Boris Diop quarreled with Mbembe on this point, arguing that they had yet to see evidence of much in the way of integration or cultural exchange. Diop also turned the question around and pointed out that there is, in fact, “a scramble for China,” and there was no reason why Africa should be any different in seeking Chinese investment.

But the provincialism of the New Yorkers soon showed through. In the Q&A, it became clear that Mbembe had said the wrong thing. If China was to be discussed at all, the Americans wanted to hear confirmation from the African writers of what they already felt with complete conviction: that China is the bad empire.

Achille Mbembe wasn’t going to tell them anything of the kind.

“The only way we’ll make sure that we don’t have 700 of our young people being buried in the Mediterranean is by opening the continent to itself. The only people right now who are willing to lend money to African nations to build the required infrastructure — airports, harbours, highways — are the Chinese. The World Bank will not give money. The USA will not lend the money. Europe will not lend the money. The Chinese will lend the money. So we’ll take that money. We’ll take it and we’ll build the infrastructure that’s needed. If the price to pay for that is that China sends it workers and ask them to live in compounds where they don’t interact with us, then so be it.”

“But let me tell you one thing. Not all of them live in compounds. You go to Douala, the capital city of Cameroon. They are in the informal sector! Some of them are speaking pidgin. So something is going on, we have to see it in the long term. We have to re-introduce a historical perspective to begin to judge with some clarity a lot of processes that seem confusing. We need to educate our people, for instance. China provides 10,000 fellowships every single year to African countries. You know what it takes to go and study in China? They give you a visa application on one page. One single page! Try to do that with France, Italy, or the USA, and come back, and then we’ll discuss. They want to train 100,000 Africans in the next ten years. Among the student population in China, Africans constituted 3% ten years ago. Today, it’s 8.7%. This is not colonialism. Or if it is, it must be colonialism of a special kind.”

The whole discussion is here, watch from 1.18 to see Aminatta Forna, Diop, and Mbembe responding to the question of China.

Elliot Ross

Elliot Ross is on the Editorial Board of Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry

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