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China in Africa: The Real Story

Eating Bitter to Taste Sweetness (guest post)

Deborah Brautigam

This guest post is by Lila Buckley, a student at Oxford University who is currently in Senegal doing an initial research trip for her master's dissertation on Chinese engagement in agriculture. She writes that her first trip to Africa ...

".. is an unusual introduction to the continent as I am living more in the Chinese world than the Senegalese one. But what a world this is! Chinese people have a reputation for being difficult for outsiders to approach, but in my experience, once you gain their trust they will go to the ends of the Earth for you.

"I am finding this to be true of the Chinese I am meeting here in Senegal as well. I have already been welcomed into a Chinese family running a restaurant in Dakar, gone on a road trip with Chinese agronomists all the way to the northern border with Mauritania, dined on a fishing boat and sang karaoke late into the night with Chinese and Taiwanese fisherman, and worked alongside Chinese and Senegalese workers on a farm outside of Dakar.

"I won't go into too much detail of my findings just yet, except to share a snippet of a conversation I had last night with the head of the Chinese agricultural mission for Senegal. He had been gone all day on a trip to a neighbouring farm that hadn't gone very well. Over dinner I suggested that it must have been very "辛苦" (difficult, exhausting). This is a very common thing to say to someone when you want to express sympathy for a difficult or laborious process. It literally means "tired bitterness". He quickly responded that his work should not be called "tired bitterness". It could be called bitterness, but "bitterness comes in many forms, and what I do does not make me tired. People need to work hard to enjoy rest. You can't really enjoy life without also having bitterness". He picked up a piece of 苦瓜 (bitter gourd) from a dish on the table that he had grown with his own labor, and said, "You can't really know sweetness until you eat bitterness."
"This statement gets at the heart what I observe as a fundamentally different approach to agriculture work between the Chinese and the Senegalese. The Chinese are critical of what the Senegalese emphasis on religion (primarily Sufi Mauride Islam) and what they perceive of as a lackadaisical work ethic of farm workers, while local people seem to both admire the Chinese approach to work, as well as reject it as cold and inhuman. I feel so honoured to be let into both of these worlds for this brief glimpse of time."
DB: I imagine Lila's fluency in Chinese (not to mention her engaging personality) made all the difference in the reception she received in Senegal. We need more researchers with language skills like Lila's doing research on this topic.