Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Going to Zambia

Tonight I made a breakthrough that will put me much closer to realizing my Africa dream: I found, on the Chinese version of (prepare yourself) the Economic and Commercial Counsellor's Office of the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Zambia (breathe), a list of Chinese-run businesses operating in Zambia, sorted by industry and with cell phone contact numbers for each company. Of the two managers I was able to reach tonight, one seemed very positive and intrigued by my proposition; I've just sent him my resume (English and Chinese) and an undoubtedly error-ridden "cover letter" by e-mail (Chinese), and I'll be continuing the search tomorrow as time permits. Right now it's 3:45 AM and I'm at the point of incoherency, so excuse any errors in the post below.

A little background:

I was sitting in the Manila last month facing the prospect of applying for one of the classic Yale summer getaways - an internship in Beijing, a volunteer position in Yunnan Province, and the like - and feeling downhearted about the fact that my main hope for this summer, an internship at the American Institute in Taiwan (the U.S.'s unofficial embassy there), had fallen through unexpectedly. I had really been counting on that internship to offer me a glimpse of the world of foreign affairs, particularly as they are conducted in East Asia, but more than that, I wasn't really finding any of the Yale opportunities interesting in a way that related to what I'm going to loosely call my "career interests." The summer after my junior year, 2012, is already booked (I'll be less tight-lipped about that plan a year from now), so this is looking like my last chance to gain some job experience before graduation - experience which will help me get a job when the time comes, but which more importantly will help me decide what I want to do.

I sat down and made a list of worthwhile jobs - translation, media, and/or something to do with international relations. (I should note here that I am becoming less and less certain about what that last phrase actually entails, and less and less convinced I have what it takes to get involved in that sphere.) I then added a few mo re conditions of my own: 1) I wanted a job that would require the practical use of Chinese, at least some of the time; and 2) I wanted to do something slightly crazy that I probably wouldn't have a chance to do after graduating and getting a real job.

Then I just drew arrows from all of those conditions to another part of the paper, wrote "AFRICA" in big letters, and circled it.

For those who don't know me very well, this is generally my problem-solving style: I'm not so strong on the split-second answer, nor will logic get me very far when the going gets really tough; I'm more about methodically laying out the situation and making sure conditions are just right for the Big Idea (TM) to take hold.

My thought is that I can experience for myself, and even be part of, a massive global event that's occurring right now - the thickening and tightening of the bonds between China and Africa. This trend is obvious in the available statistics - billions of dollars offered in loans by China's Export-Import Bank to mine copper, drill for oil, build railway track and hydropower dams - but it also has a human component, the main perspective adopted by Howard French, an insanely impressive journalist and author of this fantastic article about China in Africa, in his upcoming book on the subject. Chinese with guts - from farmers to ice cream shop owners to mine managers to big-time banking execs to the ever-present dirt-cheap trinket-hawkers - are moving to Africa to work and do business, many of them funded at least indirectly by government-backed loans.

If this isn't "global affairs," I don't know what is.

On the practical side, I expect to be able to make myself an attractive job applicant and a useful intern. As of now I have absolutely no way of confirming my thoughts on this, but I imagine that given the size (mostly small- to mid-) and newness (mostly past 5 years) of Chinese operations in Africa, they're probably even more lacking in (quasi-)bilingual native English speakers than they are in China itself. And good communication is key to good PR, an aspect of Chinese business that really needs a boost lately given the resentment building against Chinese firms due to cases of shamelessly low bids on extractive mining rights, mistreatment and even murder of African workers, and other incidents that have made the China factor a hot-button political issue in some African countries.

I originally chose Zambia through the very unscientific process of looking at a 2006 map of Chinese investment in Africa, picking the countries with the highest levels of investment, weeding out the very dangerous ones (namely, Nigeria and Sudan), and doing a little basic research into the remainder. Fortunately, Zambia has also withstood my more recent and open-minded selection scheme, another "weeding-out" process that has gone like this:
1. Exclude countries in which English is not an official language.
2. Exclude countries that are unreasonably dangerous (based on State Department information and the insurance group Medex's "threat rating").
3. Exclude countries that are too developed, or that I don't like. (Not gonna lie... I don't want to go to a softie island country like the Seychelles or Mauritius, which have HDI - Human Development Index - ratings of "high." And I don't like South Africa because I hear it's really industrialized.)
4. Exclude countries in which the main language of commerce is not English. (Based on Wikipedia descriptions and/or a bit of quick Googling.)

The countries that still make the cut are: Ghana, the Gambia, Swaziland, Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia, Malawi, and Botswana. I have set the last four aside as a sort of "B Team" because it seems that English, while an official language, is less often used than the local language.

Zambia in particular has the following going for it:
1. Chinese levels of investment are especially high (the highest by far of the countries that make my cut), and Zambian ties to China are especially strong (China is Zambia's biggest export destination and third largest source of imports). Much of the work being done by Chinese companies is in infrastructure-building, which is what I'm most keen to see unfold; and in mining, which would definitely be interesting.
2. Chinese PR problems are particularly terrible in Zambia - strikes, low wages, complaints about poor working and safety conditions, the shooting of a mine worker, a lack of direct aid, and an upcoming election are all factors here.
3. Pretty decent climate - unlike Ghana and the Gambia, which are situated in Equatorial Africa - and also seemingly very safe (for Africa).

So... that's the plan! And if Li Ming from the China Irrigation and Hydroelectric Power Construction Group somehow fast-tracks my proposal and e-mails me a scanned copy of an official-looking invitation within seven days, I just might be able to apply for a Yale fellowship to fund all of this. It's a long shot, but hey - who knows?

I'll keep you posted.

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