Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Friday, February 6

The African frontier

Evan Osnos has a good article (subscription only, unfortunately) in this week's New Yorker about an African immigrant community in Guangzhou, China. The locus of the community is a market, many of the immigrants acting as middlemen, buying goods from Chinese merchants and reselling them, often in their home countries. (About half the community is Nigerian, though many countries are represented; Kenya Airways, Osnos notes, has just opened a route direct from Nairobi to Guangzhou, whose African population is larger than those of Shanghai and Beijing combined.)

Osnos paints a picture of capitalism unleashed; it actually reminded me very much of an article I read a couple years ago—by George Packer, also in the New Yorker—about Lagos. In it, Packer describes a depressing scene where capitalism has run amok, driven by the desperation of poverty. While some (like Rem Koolhaas) see in Lagos's teeming slums an "impressive performance," Packer thinks this is a naïve romanticization:
The impulse to look at an “apparently burning garbage heap” and see an “urban phenomenon,” and then make it the raw material of an elaborate aesthetic construct, is not so different from the more common impulse not to look at all. And that reaction is understandable, for the human misery of Lagos not only overwhelms one’s senses and sympathy but also seems irreversible.

While many people in Guangzhou, for sure, don't have it easy, you get the sense that, in some ways, it's a destination for Lagos's (and elsewhere's) best and brightest—the ones whose makeshift businesses didn't merely put food on the table, but a plane ticket in their hands. And it's no mistake that they ended up in China—it's a country that nurtures entrepreneurship. As one man explains to Osnos:
When you go to the United States or Europe, there isn't much opportunity. You are going to get a menial job, with barely enough to send home. But here we don't have jobs. We set ourselves up.

Especially if you can't see the article itself, the New Yorker also has an audio slideshow, narrated by the author, embedded below: