The arrival of an estimated one million Chinese across Africa is having an impact far beyond what anyone could have expected. With many of those Chinese immigrants assigned to the mines and construction projects that are rapidly changing the face of African cities, a more complex and radical transformation is happening far off the main roads. Here in Kinshasa, as in many other major African cities, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants have taken up residence smack in the middle of indigenous local communities. While an elite minority of Chinese expatriates live in the gated compounds with their western counterparts, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants are far less fortunate. They live side by side in the densely packed shanty towns with the 8-10 million other Kinshasans who struggle each day with water, electricity and security. Never before have so many people from such divergent cultures had to assimilate so rapidly on this continent. This is a dramatic departure from past waves of foreign migration to Africa say, for example, by the British who imported South Asians to their former colonies. In those cases, Indians and Pakistanis were tightly segregated from both their white patrons and, in many cases, Africans themselves. This sparked the creation of large South Asian ghettos in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa among other places. No, instead, the Chinese are assimilating themselves in truly unbelievable ways.
Just as it is everywhere else, race relations across Africa are extremely complicated. That said, there is one exception. For most Africans the difference between themselves and foreigners is straightforward: you are either black African or you are “white.” No matter if you are South Asian, Middle Eastern or even African-American, you will likely be described as “white.” It’s essentially an “us and them” mentality. That is, until the Chinese arrived.
On a recent drive back to the office, I asked one of my local colleagues where the Chinese communities were in Kinshasa. “There is no Chinese community, they live with us,” he said. “They live right next door to me. They eat with us, they shop with us and they even sell “beignets!” (tasty donut-like fried dough). He said when the Chinese first arrived in his neighborhood a couple of years ago, he thought it was a bit strange and kept his distance from the “mundele” (the Lingala word for “foreigner” or more generally used to describe “white people”). Over time, though, he said attitudes started to change as he and his neighbors began to see the Chinese as different from most of the other “mundele” who live in Kinshasa. “They’re learning Lingala,” he went on, “they eat with us and, most importantly, they are not afraid of us.” Now, more and more, the Chinese peasants who live among the vast neighborhoods of Kinshasa are being seen as less foreign and, incredibly, less “white.” “We joke among ourselves that the Chinese skin is becoming browner and browner to where it’s now black,” he said.
When we arrived back at the office I wanted to find out if his experience was isolated or represented something broader. I asked three other of our local employees what their views were of their new Chinese neighbors and astonishingly they were the same. On a personal level, many of the Chinese immigrants who now reside in Kinshasa have transcended a legendary cultural and racial chasm. It is a testament to the power of making the effort to learn someone’s else language, share the experience of eating with your neighbor and resisting the impulse to be afraid of people who are different. The Chinese have always been amazingly adaptive to different cultures and this may yet be one of their greatest advantages in the latest foreign scramble in Africa.