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Africa at a Crossroads: The Dilemma of Studying European and Working Chinese

TONY KARUMBA / AFP

Like many of my peers in primary school, I grew up wanting to be a lawyer. Others aspired to either be pilots, engineers or doctors. I remember the repetitive flowing class every time a teacher would go around asking pupils what they wanted to be when they grow up. “I want to be a lawyer, a doctor, pilot, engineer, doctor again, an engineer, a pilot, a lawyer,” and so went the predictable singsong of our aspirations.

Then there were the oddly audacious ones, who I today recall with admiration. Those who would dare not conform and boldly give answers like, chef or teacher. Those kids were way ahead of their time. One of them was my cousin, Zippy, she has wanted to be a teacher from the day she was born. She is now a hairdresser. I am a struggling writer — but that’s beside the point.

See, the likes of Zippy would back then be met by the jeers and giggles of fellow children who thought ‘my dreams are bigger than thou’. As for the rest of us, we walked into this spectrum and did a typical copy and paste because as a child, being different was shameful. Teachers and parents alike encouraged it. Even after completing a degree in Communications, my parents are still convinced that there is a lawyer in me somewhere.

Kenya’s education system, just like most other African countries, was introduced by foreigners, for foreigners. European foreigners in particular. For instance, in our history classes, we are taught that German explorer Johann Ludwig Krapf discovered Mt. Kenya. That the Africans who had been living around the area for eons had never found out about the existence of the second-highest mountain in Africa before the Europeans came.

The initial role of Kenya’s education system, which was promoted by Christian missionaries in the 19th and 20th Centuries, was to simply equip Africans with reading and writing skills to function in low-skilled professions like carpentry. It is pretty much the only form of education we have known.

This has been until the recent advent of the Chinese. So much so that Africa is in a matter of fewer than two decades is quickly tossing western ties that had been in existence for centuries. According to a UN report, China is currently “in the heart of Africa”, with trade ties that have grown at a “breathtaking pace”. The report shows that the China-African trade amounted to $10.5 billion in 2000, $40 billion in 2005 and $166 billion in 2011. Further reports indicate that as of 2014, it got to $220 billion.

Coincidentally, US-African trade began dwindling just when the Chinese ties were spiking. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009.

“The cornerstone of U.S. economic relations with sub-Saharan Africa since 2000 has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act(AGOA),” however, “U.S. trade with AGOA’s participants has dropped since its 2008 peak almost to its pre-AGOA total, while African trade relationships with other countries, particularly China, have expanded,” the Council on Foreign Relations states.

Governments beat their chests in seeking China relations as a way to “create job opportunities”. This is indeed true: the Chinese are indeed bringing in jobs. I was beyond elated to land myself one. It, came just before I graduated. I mean, wow, I must have been God’s favorite child. Many of my peers are out there with degrees, bearing the burden of unemployment, yet I landed a job even before I graduate. Parents, aunts, uncles, lecturers, even older colleagues were in awe. “You have a bright future ahead,” they would utter with a smirk, others while patting my back. I almost believed it too, that I am like the virgin Mary. Chosen and blessed among all other women, in this case, millennials. But this is just what it looked like from the outside.

Deep down was an anxious 22-year-old and the only satisfaction I got from this job was the social acclaim of “a young, ambitious, talented young woman who has a bright future”. My job, at a Chinese digital content firm, was always unpredictable. In four months, I saw five of my close colleagues laid off, and two others resigning, not because they got greener pastures, but really could not bear the weight of the job anymore.

Now among those laid off, was Tom. Tom fell ill, got admitted to hospital and was not really in good shape to report to work for about three weeks. When he reported back, barely stable, he was put under review and just a few days later when he was expecting his three-months contract extension, he was shown the door. The other is Eve, who in her very honest, aggressive element, disagreed with her superior. The two were never fond of each other, but the last argument they had gone a long way to prove who’s who. All the supervisor had to do was forward Eve’s name to his seniors, and in your ordinary “freedom of expression” and “right to be heard” notion would think both sides of the story should be heard, right? Wrong! Eve summarily dismissed. The company employed locals as immediate supervisors, who would directly be in communication with employees and forwarded any concerns to top management, which was purely Chinese. The bigger bosses barely interacted with us, unless they had “special” announcements such as changes in management or a visit by their colleagues or seniors from Beijing and around the world.

Now it would take forever to tell everyone’s story, considering these are only the people I knew personally. In my estimation, there could be three times more who were laid off in my six months duration at the organization.

I also faced the music, when the organization announced to all staff that they were doing some “restructuring”. This was the umpteenth time the organization was “restructuring”. The organization was always tossing one way of operating to the other, trying to find the best way to maximize profits. You could today get hired as a writer and tomorrow thrust into data analysis, and you were expected to get with the program without questions.

I had survived the innumerous restructuring processes before and I kind of got the hang of it. I probably shouldn’t have. I believed that the whole idea behind constant restructuring is to always keep one on his/her toes. But well, it was time. My second contract was coming to an end when I was a week earlier served with a letter titled “Notice of Contract Notification.” A good enough title to get me reading past the subject.

Well, the termination never came with any reason attached to it. It was a mere apology that they will not be extending my contract. Not because I was incompetent or not punctual or that I misused company resources. Nothing. Upon asking, which from experience I ought not to have bothered, the HR simply said it was not attached to any wrongdoing. That it was because the company has simply decided not to extend my contract. So many questions still left unanswered. Like what criteria were being used to select those whose contracts were extended and those that were terminated?

In retrospect, I now understand that this is simply a typical Chinese-based mode of operations. No hard feelings. It is simply their sole role to do whatever it takes to secure the bag and secure it quickly. No such thing as long term plans, or permanent employees. Only precise and fast strategies, and employees on short term contracts.

Author Kai-Fu Lee expounds on this economic dynamic in his book ‘AI- Superpowers- China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order’. Contrasting the western culture to the Chinese, Kai-Fu writes that “Silicon Valley’s and China’s internet ecosystems grew out of different cultural soils”. Startups at the Silicon Valley tend to be mission-driven, something Africans too have adopted for a long time given our western-oriented education. Having “a novel idea, with entrepreneurs who spent their undergraduate years learning the art of coding while also basking in the philosophical debates of liberal arts education, where they were constantly told that they could change the world, and frown upon copying ideas or product features, because they are all about “pure” innovation,” he notes. Conversely, Chinese startups are market-driven, with the ultimate goal being to make money. “They are willing to create any product, adopt any model, or go into any business that will accomplish that objective… the grand prize is getting rich, and it doesn’t matter how you get there.”

Linda Ngari is a Journalism graduate of Daystar University in Kenya and a contributor for Hashtag Magazine, a youth media company based in Nairobi.

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