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Saturday 25 October  
Chinese worker in Africa
Anne Saenen's picture
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Leiden, Netherlands
Leiden, Netherlands

Dragons in the savannah

Published on : 15 November 2012 - 1:34pm | By Anne Saenen (Photo: AFP)
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Chinese migrants in Ghana are growing and so is their notoriety, according to a study by a nominee of the African Thesis Awards 2012, organised by the Africa Studies Centre in Leiden. Yet according to Judith Zoetelief, the author of the thesis "Dragons in the Savannah", many Chinese workers do not know they have a bad reputation.

“Hey, Chinaman!” shouts a Ghanaian man from across the road as he passes by on his bicycle in Tamale, the Northern Region’s capital. The words are directed at Ke Hua, a mechanic from a small town in China’s Guangxi province, who does respond to the shout even though it does not sound unfriendly.

When Dutch researcher Zoetelief, who observed the exchange, asked why, he kept quiet. Ke Hua said that he had not even heard the cyclist. In fact, his understanding of English was so limited he could not have responded.

Falling on deaf ears
Renewed political and economical relations between China and Ghana have gone hand in hand with the increased presence of this migrant group. The most recent and visible wave began gathering speed in the mid-1990s. But since the early 2000s, a growing number of negative reports have been appearing in Ghanaian media.

From Chinese men fathering African children to Chinese companies allegedly sending over ex-convicts as labourers, the Ghanaian rumour mill has been churning stories and complaints about the migrants.

But according to Zoetelief, the majority of Chinese migrants are not aware of their negative reputation. What’s more, they report not having experienced hostile attitudes from Ghanaians. According to the study, this lack of consciousness is caused by their limited access to information and their inability to read newspaper reports in English.

At the same time, the social encounters Ghanaians have had with Chinese construction workers have kept the stories circulating. Many Ghanaians in Tamale believe, for example, that the Chinese workers they witnessed building the Tamale Stadium were convicts. Why? According to some of the study’s Ghanaian interviewees, the workers looked “dirty”.

"This is bullshit!"
The topic turned out to be a controversial one among Chinese construction workers interviewed in the study. None appeared to have heard these accusations and were shocked when confronted with them.

One of the workers is quoted by Zoetelief as saying: “How would any country be able to send their convicts to work in a foreign country? This is just impossible. This is bullshit!” Another worker wondered, “who's saying these things? From what country are these people, because they obviously don’t know China”. 

During the interviews it appeared, too, that the stadium builders were held responsible for the severe drought in the summer of 2006. According to a Canadian Chinese school volunteer: “I was told that Tamale was experiencing the worst drought of the decade. Chinese construction workers at the soccer stadium were blamed for the drought. Rumours about Chinese witchcraft started spreading because there was no rain since the construction of the stadium commenced.”

Little understanding
Despite these negative stories, none of the Chinese workers told Zoetelief they felt unwelcome or treated with hostility by Ghanaians in Tamale. What the workers did experience was a sense of unfamiliarity. The Chinese informants believed that their national hosts have little understanding or knowledge of China, which, according to Zoetelief, is likely to be true.

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