Monday, November 19, 2007

It’s China’s world. The rest of us are just renting space

I stood near the front lines recently. The frontlines on the battle for the soul of Africa, that is. My wife and I visited a Chinese store here in Ouagadougou, located down by the barrage, about a 1 km behind the old Sofitel (for those who know town).

We’d always wanted to go there and pluck down a few of her hard-earned CFAs. My wife wanted to visit for the voyeuristic idea of searching through all those goods from China that one could just as easy find in any Burkina market, but with the added pleasure of being served by someone Chinese. Look at this as diversifying our retail experiences, my wife said, an insight that may tell you a thing or two about the present state of our lives.

I had other thoughts. Mostly I wanted to test my theory that China was winning the hearts of minds of Africa not by pouring its riches into the continent, but the old fashioned way: One piece of cheap plastic crap at a time.

Look at that doggy in the window
Many words have been spilled about the Chinese ritual mating dance with Africa. Either, people are blaming the Chinese for appropriating African oil or setting up shop in rogue states or selling their funky-named weapon systems to any dictator with the proper PIN code for a Swiss Bank account.

You don’t have to be in major denial like Jerry Wang from Yahoo to understand some empire-sized fear mongering is going on here. The British and the French pulled the strings for years on the continent and nobody said peep. Nobody but Africans, that is. You could make the argument that the French still have a pretty good say of what goes on in these parts, and the developed nations continue to collectively look the other way.

I say this legacy doesn’t matter much today. People can’t miss the argument that as a whole Africa is progressively becoming more confident; Fueled by expanding economies, plenty of resources and better-run governments, many states now join together to take care of themselves against foreign encroachment. This manifests itself in many ways: Look at the cold shoulder African nations give AFRICOM. Witness the hard negotiating that took place between the Europeans and different blocks of African countries to hammer out trade agreements.

Can we dance with your dates?
Let’s just say Africa isn’t as naïve and supplicant as it once was. What’s interesting is how outside actors now react to the excessively more confident Africans. It’s here where we skip ahead to the conversation about China’s rise occurring in direct relation to America’s decline. The thinking goes like this: Sometime between farting around in Afghanistan and getting sold that bill of goods in Iraq, the U.S. let the Chinese move in. Don’t pity the States, most will say. If Americans were more vigilant, more caring, more sympathetic to the plight of ruling Africans, the Chinese would most likely be looking elsewhere for friends and petroleum products.

The good news is that China is now on the hook for plying African strongmen with new suit coats and hookers and suitcases full of cash. The expense account for the U.S. has long been overdrawn in that department, so the more the newbies want to ante up, the better.

What the Chinese seem to have done, however, is take their game one step further and directly cultivate the people – you know, regular Africans. They’re building roads, bridges, buildings, railroads: anything that takes place when big trucks and engineers get together. The Chinese have most likely banked a lot of goodwill this way: ameliorating the standard of living for run-of-the-mill Africans, those people who never feel the direct benefits of debt relief or well catered Friendship Summits or satellites in orbit.

Who’s zooming whom?
The Chinese have something else up their sleeves, though. Once they grab peoples’ attention with bridges and schools, they hook them in with cheap crap. Walk through any dusty African market and you’ll find piles of Chinese goods for sale. Like those suckers from the First World, Africans are now investing heavily in plastic futures: cups, dishes, garbage bins, picture frames, see-thru containers of every sort and size. With the “special friendship deals” signed in African capitals, the Chinese provide “duty free” status for African goods (read: oil) and the Africans duly provide the same for Chinese plastic.

That’s not to say there isn’t backlash among Africans. At lest a argue that the Chinese advance on the continent resembles nothing different from previous European and U.S. commercial invasions. The math usually works like this: Africa exports raw materials to foreign country only to turn around and reward foreign country by buying finished goods produced in said foreign country.

That all may be true, but here is why the Chinese way tastes at least a little different. The Chinese offer Africans something real and concrete while American (and to a lesser extent, European) promises are abstract, remote even: democracy, participatory government, rule of law – whatever you want to call it. The U.S. says, if you follow through on the first goals, the good stuff will follow. Later. Maybe much later.

The Chinese appeal to Africans’ base needs. This translates simply: If you have enough plastic crap, you won’t care about what junk the Americans peddle. In the end, everyone is happy: the stalwarts who get to remain in power; the family with their new tools to make their lives a little easier; and, the guy at the end of the street schlepping this stuff.

Retail dreams
And thus brings us to the store, which happens to be just off this cute brick road, surrounded by gardens (watered by hand from the man-made lake). Take caution entering by auto, because visitors must descend a steep driveway to get into the parking lot, a very large knock against the store, my wife claims, along with its location in the middle of retail nowhere. Descend we did, and exited our family sedan to be greeted by a friendly young Chinese guy also climbing down from his 4x4, which, oddly enough, sported Benin license plates.

The man turned out to be the owner/manager of the store as could be witnessed by the staff jumping to attention when he walked into the building. Once inside, I noticed the shop area was much smaller than the building’s footprint. This, along with a complete lack of customers and irregular hours, led my wife to speculate whether the store is a front for something illicit.

The proprietor, who spoke very good English, told us he came from Shanghai and had been living in Africa for the past 12 years. He wasn’t a big fan of Shanghai, he said, because it was too noisy, crowded and congested: words one doesn’t usually reserve for Ouagadougou. (Although my wife’s young brother asserted Ouaga was too noisy, but how much do you believe a kid who at the time only had the vanilla suburbs of Houston as a reference point?)

After exchanging pleasantries, the boss retired to a sofa to the back area of the store to catch a movie on DVD with a young Chinese woman, leaving the Burkinabé staff of two to remain on alert for us, following our every move as we walked through the tight isles. The fore-area of the store was made up of three rows of these shelves, chocked full of:

  • Shoes
  • Tea
  • Equipment for preparing tea
  • Small cooking utensils
  • Baby clothes
  • Underwear (in strange packages.)
  • Toys
  • Candy

To the left of the cash register, lies the clothing section, offering a selection of sport coats, button down shirts, shiny ties. Behind a display of mats and baby accessories lay the back area, an airy space full of (my guess) Chinese-made televisions sets, stereos and mostly pleather furniture. It was here where the patron retired to.

I mostly kept among the product shelves (although I disturbed the patron and his friend by walking through their movie a number of times). At one point, I asked my wife in English the purpose of some product and both eager sales clerks used French to answer the question in unison.

If this newfound enthusiasm of sales clerks is the product of the Chinese Revolution in Africa, it may be a little disconcerting, but not wholly a bad thing. For the most part, enthusiasm beats waking up the shopkeeper in the middle of the day, even though I am one of those people who doesn’t usually mind doing that. It’s the surly clerks at the larger stores that bother me, though. But these guys at the Chinese shop were anything but surly. The two young men were a little overzealous, yes, but who can fault them? We were the only people in the store.

We quickly ran out of good things to gawk at, which is a sad thing. I’d had such high hopes for this store – passing by so often, only to stare down at its shuttered doors. Now that we finally caught it open, we were more than let down. We chatted with the amiable proprietor a few more minutes and bought cans of Nescafe, a product we’d never seen before.

Climbing the hill back to the brick road, my wife told me that Burkinabé would never shop there. “There’s nothing interesting for them, maybe sacks and bags,” she said. “But it’s not close to anything.”

The conversation continued a couple minutes until we passed the state prison and noticed a truck with a load of desks waiting entrance at the front gate. Was forced labor for prisoners getting a new life in Ouagadougou? Perhaps the forces of globalization were already taking over, much like the stories of call centers staffed by prisoners killing time in those private prisons in the U.S. (Can I get that credit card number again, sir?)

Euro Trash
Our next stop was a place called Euro d’Occasion, where a couple of local guys bought a few shipping containers of used goods and hoped to force the stuff onto other people. Unlike the Chinese, the owners chose a good location – right on the busy beltway that circles the city. Also different is the fact that the store looks small, but once inside, it is actually cavernous. Much of the stock sits on tables beneath what looks like a covered courtyard, something like you may find in North Africa, countries well known for their flourishing flea markets.

Flea market is not a bad way to describe this place. Electronic goods of all eras clamber up the walls and spill over onto a few of the tables. Fax machines, copy machines, personal computers, you name it. Boomboxes of every make and model. My wife pointed out that there were even a few real Walkmen, kept under lock and key beneath cages set on a table.

I was partial to the different typewriters with French keyboards. These were orderly stacked next to some adding machines. Aesthetically, I loved the wall of waffle presses.

Like rummaging through the outdoor flea markets of Morocco, I spent a lot of time at Euro d’Occasion looking at the household goods: coffee cups and the multiple pan and kitchen sets (good for bachelors).

Once circling through the various rooms a few times, however, I started losing energy. Buying containers of used goods is a hit-or-miss proposition: you don’t really know what you’re getting until you unseal it. For these guys, the inventory is mostly sellable, but they did receive some real oddities: cans of paint, some new, but most of them were already opened; joysticks for old Atari games; Bells; a plate full of teeth molds (you read that right); car lights (mostly rear and taillights); pasta makers.

“The place was full of appliances from 1976,” my wife said afterwards. She did find a nice little knick-knack, a little sign with the title “Things that are never true”

  • Let’s stop for just one beer
  • This won’t hurt a bit
  • The doctor will call you right back
  • Gee, that’s a cute little baby

Euro d’Occasion was worth the trip, the same way going to the rummage sale is worth spending a Saturday morning. It would be interesting to note the horror on most Burkinabé faces when they enter the store: Yes, producing that much junk is what every civilization aspires to. Africans have their own cultures and religions and natural drugs; we have our waffle irons. You wonder what happens when the Sahara finally snows this area under; what will the archeologists say when they dig this place out in 150 years?

I ain’t lost yet, so I gotta be a winner
Most likely, the increase in African standard of living will bring howls of fear from certain corners. We’re teaching them to be just like us, people will say: Gluttons for any shiny piece of trash. Businesses will certainly learn that Africans with cash are just like anybody else. If that’s true (which I believe it is), what fate awaits their culture? What will happen to their souls? What will they do with all those waffle irons?

The truth is that they’ve probably always been just like us. They’ve just never had the chance. Or, better yet: Nobody ever treated them like soulless consumers before.

That’s why, if I had to pick a winner, I’d have to go with the Chinese. In many ways, it’s already their world. With their global reach and promises to elevate the standard of living of Africans, the Chinese have already won. Sure, they’re not pulling in too many customers to their store down by the barrage. Like I pointed out before, though, you can buy those goods anywhere in town. If it’s a toaster you’re looking for, though, you’re going to have to make a special trip. It will be interesting to see how many people take it.

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