Letter from Uganda: 5,000 miles from China – and yet not far at all

Why We Wrote This

The story of China’s impact in Africa isn’t told just in billions of dollars and thousands of acres. It’s in the day-to-day details – and the people living at the crossroads of two different worlds.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Han Shiqin, who is from China, works in a wholesale shoe store in Kampala, Uganda, as a security guard stands behind her, on Aug. 15, 2019. She has lived here with her husband for about two months.

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As I checked into my hotel, I noticed a familiar sight. Sitting on the reception counter were complimentary copies of China Daily, the English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party. 

I headed back out the door to the currency exchange. Blow me down if I didn’t almost immediately come across another distinctively Chinese piece of urban furniture – a sliding security gate, opening and closing like an accordion. 

When I was a reporter in Beijing, I’d seen countless versions of this gate blocking the way to countless government offices and other places that I wanted to go all over China. This example of the genre was sitting in front of the China National Offshore Oil Corp.

But this wasn’t Beijing. I was in Kampala, Uganda – in part, to report on China’s hotly contested role in the region. Even so, I had not expected to find China and its works so ubiquitous here. The Chinese are indeed everywhere, as many Ugandans told me with varying degrees of approval: building roads, prospecting for oil, erecting hydroelectric dams, extending airports, setting up telecommunications networks, opening farms, and manufacturing floor tiles, foam mattresses, plastic sandals, and goodness knows what else.

Five minutes out of Entebbe Airport, the gateway to Uganda’s capital, Kampala, you hit the new expressway. And all of a sudden you are in China.

I lived in China for a number of years. It didn’t take me a second to recognize the tollbooth architectural style as Chinese mock-monumental. Farther toward town, the concrete structures reinforcing the earthworks were familiar too.

The China Communications Construction Company, which built the road, had used the same tried and true cookie-cutter designs that you find all across the People’s Republic.

As I checked into my hotel, I noticed another familiar sight from my time in Beijing: Sitting on the reception counter were complimentary copies of China Daily, the English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party.

I decided to walk up the hill to a nearby currency exchange office. Blow me down if I didn’t almost immediately come across another distinctively Chinese piece of urban furniture – a sliding security gate that opens and closes like an accordion.

I had seen countless versions of this gate blocking the way to countless government offices and other places that I wanted to go all over China. This example of the genre was only half closed, so visitors could get into the car park in front of the China National Offshore Oil Corp. without too much difficulty.

Newly acquired Ugandan shillings in hand, I went to buy a local SIM card. And who should I find just ahead of me in the line? Two young Chinese guys, one helping the other, clearly a newcomer, to get his account set up. Both worked for Huawei – the Chinese telecom giant that was in the Ugandan news a few days later because of a report in The Wall Street Journal that its engineers had helped the government hack into opposition politicians’ conversations.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The central commercial area bustles with activity on Aug. 15, 2019, in Kampala, Uganda. About 90% of the goods sold here are from China – including mattresses, shoes, clothing, decorations, and kitchen items.

I had read quite a lot about China’s spreading presence and influence in Africa. I was in Uganda, in fact, to report on Beijing’s hotly contested role in the region. Still, I had not expected to find China and its works so ubiquitous. The Chinese are indeed everywhere, as many Ugandans told me with varying degrees of approval: building roads, prospecting for oil, erecting hydroelectric dams, extending airports, setting up telecommunications networks, opening farms, and manufacturing floor tiles, foam mattresses, plastic sandals, and goodness knows what else.

Everywhere – yet apart. Chinese communities here have a reputation for keeping to themselves, but that is not Han Shiqin’s style.

She is an adventurous young woman who came to Africa two years ago to study Arabic in Sudan, then went to work as a translator in Nigeria, and now manages a wholesale shoe shop in downtown Kampala, flogging low-end footwear to traders from across East Africa.

En route she picked up an Arabic name (Afiya) and a Chinese husband, whom she met on the Chinese messaging app WeChat, wooed virtually for a month, and married during a 10-day trip home.

“He was very nervous,” Ms. Han recalls. “But I encouraged him to come to Africa; everybody ought to travel.”

“I go to visit villages and I go to people’s homes to chat,” she adds, and “I eat Ugandan food” (though she says she is the only Chinese expatriate she knows who does so). “I don’t want to stay at home. I went to the source of the Nile, too.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Wang Yuxin (left), who is from China, works in a wholesale shoe store in a central commercial area of Kampala, Uganda, on Aug. 15, 2019.

Wilson Street, where Ms. Han works, is lined by Chinese shoe shops selling imported or locally made sandals and sneakers by the truck load, literally. Just up the street, Wang Yuxin, spectacles perched on his nose, is busy writing out invoices, receipts, and orders while a colleague behind the counter counts thick wads of 50,000 shilling notes.

Mr. Wang, who is 26, came here five years ago. In those days, he recalls, most of his compatriots “feared Africa as a place that could terrify people, with sickness and heat.” But for him, it was “an escape.”

“In China 6 million people graduate from university every year,” he points out. “I couldn’t find a good job that fit my aspirations. So I made a different choice.

“People were suspicious at first because we were new and different. But as time has passed and more and more Chinese have opened shops in this street, it’s better.”

Mr. Wang can count and say “hello” in Swahili, but that’s about as far as his integration goes; he lives in a house with 11 other Chinese businessmen and a Ugandan woman who can cook Chinese, and he has a clear goal once he has saved enough money.

“When I get married, I’ll return home.”

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