Young Chinese idealists vie to join their 'peace corps' in Africa

The first of 300 volunteers arrive to teach Chinese, poultry technologies, and lessons in traditional Chinese medicine.

Across the border from South Sudan, in the small Ethiopian village of Asossa, Sun Yingtao, a young agriculture student from Hebei Province in China, is teaching subsistence farmers – many of them refugees from war-torn Sudan – techniques for getting good yields out of their meager lands.

Seconded to the Ethiopian Department of Rural Development, Mr. Sun spends his days trying to identify various vegetable diseases, discussing possible alternative water usage, and debating the pros and cons of sowing onions and peppers in rows or in a scattered fashion.

Sun, who has been here for six months, is a civilian volunteer – one of a group of 50 young men and women who have been sent by the Chinese government as part of a new, experimental "peace corps" project in the country. This is the program's second year, and there are small volunteer groups in three locations: Ethiopia, the Seychelles, and Zimbabwe – three countries of limited economic importance for China.

Tens of thousands of young Chinese went through a rigorous three-month application process last year to compete for a spot on the volunteer team, says Liu Wei, another volunteer in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. And, though small now, the program is expected to expand.

Last November, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, President Hu Jintao said China would send 300 young volunteers to Africa by 2009 to do jobs ranging from teaching Chinese to introducing poultry technologies to introducing traditional Chinese medicinal treatments in local hospitals.

The volunteers have their plane tickets paid for and receive a stipend, but are otherwise expected to fend for themselves.

Sun, like all the volunteers, speaks some English, and no Amharic, the local language in this part of Ethiopia.

He communicates with the farmers by using a lot of body language, he says with a little grin. He has no budget for his projects, except for the money he brought with him or manages to raise.

During his time in Asossa, he has lost 10 pounds, and, he says, pulling up sleeves and pant legs to prove his point, received 188 bug bites.

He spent the Chinese New Year alone, sending text messages via cellphone to his volunteer colleagues scattered around Ethiopia.

But the thing that is really getting him down lately, he says, is the poverty he encounters. It has made him, he says, a "sadder person."

Sun bristles when asked about China's intentions in Africa.

"Many people ask me why I wanted to come here," he says. "And I respond, I wanted to know the real Africa and do something good for [the people]. We know Africa is poor and thirsty, and we come from a country that is a friend to Africa. We must help friends."

"We are a new generation that benefited from China's economic reform," adds Ms. Liu, who teaches secretarial skills to government officials at the Ethiopian Ministry of Federal Affairs. "We are a warmhearted generation, and we care about the world."

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