Monday, July 18, 2011

Lusaka Photos, Part I

Lately my connection speed has been picking up, probably in part due to internet rationing, so this weekend I’m posting Part I of my set of favorite Lusaka photos. I’m making this update by e-mail, so I can’t do anything fancy with the picture placement/formatting; if they all ended up in the order I wanted them, then the brief captions below should make sense:
  1. The company dorms. I live on the second floor, farthest door on the left.
  2. My room! To the right is a table and chair; to the left, out of sight, is a wardrobe and set of shelves.
  3. My desk. A coworker just left today, though, so soon I’ll be moving to the one visible off to the right.
  4. A view of the courtyard and offices, taken from just outside my door.
  5. A group of the younger folks sharing dinner.
  6. Cola chicken wings and super-awesome fish. And drinking red wine out of bowls.
  7. The company’s other courtyard – more of a homey feel, though not as modern or spacious as ours.
  8. The Company Baby (TM)... driving a forklift.
  9. Where Chinese workers congregate, there will be Chinese-style entertainment...
  10. My favorite picture of the summer – a beat-up 4WD littered with a mix of Chinese and African bumper stickers, seen outside a nearby Chinese-run lumber yard. Just looking at this car, I feel like it must have a ton of history behind it, and at least a hundred interesting stories; even more so as it was probably originally bought (and used) in a nearby country, as the steering wheel looks to be on the left and neither of the flags are Zambian.

Brief weekly recap:
 - This week was full of meals and toasts, as the company’s translator (the aforementioned coworker) has fulfilled the two years on his contract and is going back to China. I’ve also been working on a 3-to-4-minute min publicity video for the company, which I’m doing with an excellent video camera (I want one!), but editing 1) in iMovie and 2) without any experience... Anyway, fingers crossed and we’ll see how it comes out.
 - Yesterday my friend Thomas invited me and a few other folks over for the evening. We ate some dinner, played some games (it turns out I’m still a Battleship champ), and eventually headed out for what was my first real casino experience. I pretty quickly lost about as much as I was willing to lose in one night - $30, as I’m on a tight budget after Victoria Falls - but in my defense, I never really understood all the rules of blackjack before yesterday, and I think I handled the learning curve pretty well. (Which I suppose is just another way of saying that I lost the vast majority of my money almost immediately.) It was also a pretty laid-back environment (unlike, I’m told, casinos in America), on all sides; I misread my cards one hand and asked for a hit when I was already at 20, and instead of finishing me off the dealer just sort of looked at me with eyebrows raised and waited for me to reconsider.
 - This morning I went for a game of Ultimate (frisbee), which was also a ton of fun. I’m no good, particularly at offense, but there was a mix of skill levels and a good amount of people (~20), so we all had a good time. I spent a lot of time guarding a Marine who’s stationed at the U.S. Embassy; he was massive and willing to lay out/etc, but not very skilled, so we were about even. Having forgotten all about sunscreen, I also discovered that I don’t even burn under a few hours of full Zambian sun any more! I had a great time; I think that living (almost) exclusively in the expat community within a larger society definitely keeps you from understanding it and ultimately being a part of it, but I absolutely love getting together with expats now and then, as they’re usually really interesting and a lot of fun – and I think that becomes more true the farther you get off the beaten track.

Less than 22 days – and, I’d guess, about three more blog entries – until I’m on the plane home. Hope you haven’t missed me too much.

Monday, July 11, 2011

this week

News is slim, so I hope you’ll settle for a few highlights and a few more thoughts about Sino-African relations.


 - I can’t believe I forgot to mention this: the 90th Anniversary Celebration of the Chinese Communist Party went off swimmingly. Our company’s group piece was so-so at best, but I pulled off my solo (with – did I mention? – three backup dancers) without incident and it was very well received. I had a chance to meet the Chinese ambassador to Zambia, as well as the head of the embassy’s Council on Commerce; however, they didn’t seem terribly interested in meeting with me. My only good lead was a reporter for CCTV and former Chinese teacher, so we’ll see what happens with that. After the event, we all went out for a delicious dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, paid for by the boss, and were informed that two karaoke machines had been ordered in the hopes of keeping the workers amused during their free time. (I guarantee they’ll still get bored and sneak off to the casinos.)

 - I’ve been slowly meeting people from other Chinese companies: a girl at a gas(-canister) company; a guy at a paper factory; and a project manager at a small construction enterprise, who was able to invite me to dinner and then charge it to the company, and whose compound I’ll probably be visiting next week.

 - Reckoning by the amount of malaria prophylaxis left in my cupboard, I’m already more than halfway through my stay in Africa – in fact, the halfway mark was Friday.

 - I’m still waiting for a breakthrough before I can improve my ping-pong... and new ears before I can improve my listening comprehension. Am I destined to be mediocre at everything I do no matter how hard I try?

 - Today I helped make baobab fruit juice! It’s certainly not the new pineapple, but it’s actually pretty good if you add enough sugar.


This past week, while renewing my visa (and, harrowingly, having my business ties exposed by a local coworker, who was so bent on being helpful that he didn’t heed my warning that we should do our visa business separately), I had a chance to talk privately with our Zambian HR Director about how he, and other Zambians, see the Chinese. Our offices are adjacent so we see a lot of each other, and he didn’t need any urging to speak freely with me.

His views on expatriates in general seemed passively negative – he blames high unemployment on a population boom brought on by an influx of refugees from less stable area regimes, though he doesn’t seem to blame the people themselves for their actions. His views on local Chinese-run companies were mostly couched in general terms, but he made it clear that his own views were only slightly more positive.

When he tells people he’s working for a Chinese company, he said, they ask him if he’s crazy. Chinese companies are known – especially in comparison to the more deeply rooted British and Indian firms – for trying to turn over a profit at any cost. This means, in his words, taking advantage of the high unemployment to pay low wages and  inhumanely disregard workers’ religious/family/rent situation. In this respect, he sees our company as occupying the middle of the spectrum in relation to other Chinese companies – and the lower end overall. Zambia’s business and labor laws are fairly comprehensive, but he says that some Chinese companies (not ours) will even pay “slave wages” because 20 people are clamoring for the same job. His own salary, he says (which is about the same as my subsidy, though the man is a full-time employee with a college degree and work experience) is just enough to cover his gas to and from work every day; he makes his real money off of the farm he owns, and is mostly here because he likes working HR and wants some experience under his belt. I don’t think he’s putting on airs – I’ve seen his enrollment certificate for the six-year correspondence program in HR at a local university.

Another problem that locals have with the Chinese, he says, is that the latter are seen as irresponsible investors (or, as the HR director calls them, “so-called ‘investors’”) - people who will drop in for a few years, make some quick cash, and go home, leaving behind nothing of lasting value. He doesn’t think that our boss falls under that category; on the contrary, “Mr. Li” has been here for 13 years, built a villa here, sent his daughter to school here, and is even rumored (incorrectly) to have received Zambian citizenship. When speaking with local workers, I’ve found that despite the scarcity of his smiles, the boss seems very well-liked for his understanding of, and especially investment in, Zambia.

Another issue is that locals want foreign investors to come and do things that Zambians themselves don’t do very well (e.g., construction or manufacturing), not to add yet more competition to already crowded markets (e.g., farming). Frankly, I myself don’t see this as the responsibility of an investor in any sense. For instance, I know from the Economist that farming – one of the biggest industries the Chinese engage in here, after mining and construction – has a long way to go in terms of efficiency, and I say that that if any investor sees an opportunity (particular a technological one) to produce more efficiently, then more power to him or her. The real enemy is still the massive set of  American and European subsidies that push down global market prices... but that’s a discussion for another day.

Another thing I take issue with is that our HR director at no time recognized the fact that, well, employment is better than unemployment. We can agree that each company should pay the minimum wage; we might even be able to agree on a higher amount, as a humane or living wage; but I’m not buying his higher standards of long-term investment and the like. Most investors are not philanthropists: they come to make a profit. And from a more long-term viewpoint, even lacking a minimum wage, any employment is good for the country – it lessens the pool of workers competing for each job, and strengthens competition by employers for labor. Have enough companies looking for workers, and wages will rise, while unemployment drops to a reasonable level. This is, of course, ideal... but I return to my point that, executives’ individual moral imperatives aside, employment is better than unemployment.

At any rate, Chinese companies are a huge force in Zambia right now – Chinese citizens or their representatives must have accounted for a third of the business in the Immigration Bureau when I was there, and 80% of the non-African. But, given the politically influential anti-Chinese sentiment that I’ve heard expressed from locals and the media, it will be interesting to see what the new government’s policies will be like if there is a change in power. I would predict a lot of rhetoric and a few symbolic gestures, but nothing significant: employment aside, Chinese contributions to local manufacturing and technology are too great to casually toss aside. It’s also worth noting that a lot of money is flowing into Zambia in terms of Chinese government-run enterprises, government investment, and government loans (notably through the Chinese Export-Import Bank [Ex-Im]), and I’m sure that the Chinese government will have plenty of leverage if it feels that the Zambian government has turned against local Chinese businesses.

That turned out to be a fairly long treatise; I hope it interests at least a few of my quasi-loyal readers.

Until the weekend,

Friday, July 8, 2011

Howard, David, and Me

1. My Chinese is better than Howard French’s!

I was talking to our CEO in the car on the way to his house, and he mentioned that a few months back he was interviewed by a professor from Columbia, who was doing research for a book on the Chinese in Africa. Unless there are two Columbia professors simultaneously working on the same type of book, I’m guessing that it was the man himself ( I’ve mentioned him in an earlier entry, and I’ll once again suggest his article from the Atlantic on the topic ( for those interested. But to get back to my point, I’m happy my boss thinks my Chinese is better than French’s for two reasons: First, French spent three years as the Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times; second, he completely blew me off when I e-mailed him earlier this year about contacts in Zambia.

2. I’ve decided that I will spend time over coming month interviewing and surveying as many of my company’s employees as possible for my senior thesis.

Partly because of the sudden intrusion into my life of Howard French, and partly because I’ve started plugging away at some of the scholarly (or at least quasi-scholarly) articles that I tend to set aside “for later,” I’ve started to think a bit more seriously about my senior thesis. I’m beginning to come around to the idea that a case study – or, a broader thesis grounded in or complemented by a case study – could have a lot of value, especially given the tendency of many academics to paint things in broad strokes and lack deeper practical knowledge of the situation on the ground. I’m also running up against some personal constraints: notably, a lack of focused knowledge about anything in particular, and the fact that I already have plans for next summer and will thus not be using it for research. Add that it’s a current topic which I find interesting, accessible, and relevant (both to my major and as a major force in international relations), and it seems like a done deal. My thesis will have to be one of the many things I discuss with my academic advisor when I return to Yale, but I hope I can take advantage of my time here to lay a little groundwork..

3. Something you’ll all be much more interested in, and the reason I didn’t write this weekend, is my visit to Victoria Falls.

The Falls are very difficult to capture by camera in all their glory – looking up at them from below – for three reasons. First, the sheer amount of steam and condensation kicked up, even at the beginning of the dry season, obscures most views from below, even from dry land and at a distance. Second, the aforementioned water is absolutely pervasive near the lower edge of the falls: they rent large raincoats and waterproof bags for a dollar near the entrance to Victoria Falls Park, and I’m glad I took the latter because the bits near the lower falls are in a state of permanent precipitation. Third, and not least: How do you get a good shot of a waterfall that’s over a mile wide?

Just as I was getting over the sheer volume of water careening over the precipice, my mind was set reeling by another thought: When the explorer-missionary David Livingstone ( first reached and explored the falls, he did so without the aid of roads or bridges. He just... walked, and boated, and tried not to fall over the edge before he moved on. He spent decades on various expeditions around Africa – including eight years “opening up” the Zambezi River, and seven searching for the source of the Nile. Noble ambitions, insufferable faults, and everything else aside... Who today, not fleeing from something at home, would have the sheer guts to attempt that kind of venture? It may be generations before that breed of man is once again called upon, perhaps to plumb the depths of outer space.

The ecology of the Falls took me off-guard. The upper section and surrounding areas are typical Zambian bush: green trees, green shrubs, green grass. But I took a trail down to the bottom of the falls, and when I got there I suddenly found myself treading on sandy river-bank with what exactly my conception of rain-forest-type jungle all around me. There were also baboons! - cute, funny, and also pretty menacing when irritated.

I only spent a day in the area – a shame, considering the money and time I spent getting there and back – but it was a day well-spent. After seeing the Falls from all angles, I watched a few folks bungee jump, walked onto the border with Zambia for the second time so far, had a delicious burger, and headed back to my hostel just in time to catch an evening river cruise. On the boat and afterwards, I finally got to meet the other three Yalies in Zambia (Yes, there were four of us, in Zambia, at the same time.), as well as a brigade of Irish medical students bent on taking full advantage of the cruise’s open bar. We all had a blast, deep into the night, and went our separate ways in the morning. By the time I got back to my dorm the next day, I was tired, happy, and broke: of the $150 I had brought with me (my stipend for the month of June), I had approximately $.25 left in my pocket.

And that’s all I’ve got for tonight; I’ll try for another update on Sunday. It’s pretty late and the internet’s been alright lately, so I’m going to try to attach a few photos as I blog via e-mail – here’s hoping it worked.