Wei is 48 years old and she arrived here half a year ago. In Dukem town of the Oromia Regional State she has rented a large house just opposite the Eastern Industrial Zone where she has a restaurant called (when translated from Chinese) “The Joy of the Farmer`s Family”. She is from the southern Chinese province of Fujian. Her husband is a civil engineer who came to Ethiopia eight years ago. He likes it here and does not want to go back home. Wei came to Ethiopia for the first time eight years ago but then she did not really like to remain here after a year of stay.
“I could not settle when there was nothing to get around and all I did was stare at the street. We did not really have a decent shampoo, or food that we enjoyed except for bananas. Now it has improved enormously and the presence of foreign workers has also made the difference. Alone it would have been difficult. Now I am here and I have opened this restaurant. It’s incredible how much has changed. Ethiopia now reminds me of China in the 80s, just after the launch of the open-door policy. The opportunities are there for the taking,” she says.
She tends her own vegetable garden which supplies the restaurant cuisine as well as a fish pond for the same purpose. Interestingly, she grows Chinese vegetables which would not be easily found in the local market such as Morning Glory, Paksoy or Water Spinach. She only uses organic ingredients for her cuisine. The fertilizer is only cow dung. And if you come to eat fish at her restaurant, they will catch the fish from the pond and it was still alive five minutes before it was on your table. She raises chickens and ducks as well. She came back here together with her brother and nephew. Her two children are now in universities. We are happy here. Her husband has been here for ten years and would not return. First, he worked for a Chinese state-owned company, now he runs his own business. “The Chinese crowd and the merciless competition no longer need him.”
The manager of the Great Wall Chinese restaurant in Beklo Bet area is 53 and she is from the north-eastern province of Liaoning. She has been here for the last three years and is planning to stay further for two more years. Business is quite all right but the competition is getting stiff by the day. “Except for the Chinese chef and me, all our staffs are Ethiopians. People are friendly in this country and I feel safe here. Not speaking the language, of course, makes it difficult and creates a barrier,” she says.
For four years here, the fashionable Grace, 27, works in communication and 32-year-old Wu is an IT engineer. Wu says that he really likes it here because “there is a lot of time to relax while still working hard, and the pay is very good here. Coming here was the best decision of my life. The only thing I miss is my wife and my fourteen-month-old daughter. And that is it!” A daughter of Chinese rural family, Grace said: “Incidentally I came here single and I am now married. We may return to China if we have children. But for now this is my paradise.” Both Grace and Wu agree Addis Ababa is the African version of their district capitals in earlier years: “Complete with construction sites, newly-paved roads and many new shops, cafes and restaurants, and giving you the feeling many things are still to come. Whether the rest of the Ethiopian story will be similar to the Chinese, however, remains to be seen.”
It is not precisely known when China and Ethiopia first made direct contact. The sinologist A. Hermann believed that a live rhinoceros that arrived at the court of the Chinese Emperor Ping from the country of the “Agazi” or “Agazin” between AD 1 and 6 came from the Horn of Africa; however other sinologists locate that country far closer to China, perhaps in Malaysia, India or Indonesia. Historian Richard Pankhurst is certain that by the Tang dynasty (618–907) “the Chinese were acquainted with at least part of the Horn of Africa and were trading indirectly if not directly with the Somali coast.” From that period onwards, China traded with not only Ethiopia and the Horn, but with the peoples of the Eastern African coast, obtaining elephants’ tusks, rhinoceros horns, pearls, the musk of the civet cat and ambergris. Starting in the Yuan dynasty the Chinese began to increasingly trade directly with Africans, which is attested to not only in contemporary documents, but from archeological finds of Chinese coins and porcelain.
Despite this early commercial contact, neither side showed much interest in diplomatic activity with one another until the twentieth century. China was one of only five governments which refused to recognize Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia. Relations were poor during the Haile Selassie era, when Ethiopia was allied with the western powers in the Cold War.
However, it was when Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited Ethiopia in January 1964 that official contact was made. Then Haile- Selassie visited Beijing in October 1971, where he was received by Mao Zedong. Qian Qichen, China’s vice-premier and minister of foreign affairs, visited Ethiopia in July 1989, January 1991 and January 1994. Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited in May 1996.
In December 2004, the heads of the Ethiopian and Chinese legislatures met in Beijing and in a joint statement said that the two counties wish to expand all aspects of cooperation.
The economic relationship is one-sided, with China providing large amounts of foreign aid (often tied to infrastructure projects undertaken by Chinese firms), growing Chinese investment in the Ethiopian economy and with imports of cheap consumer goods from China greatly exceeding exports from Ethiopia to China. The Chinese appear to be interested in Ethiopia primarily as a source of materials, potentially including oil and food, and as a market for Chinese exports that will expand as Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth continues. For Ethiopia, Chinese involvement is stimulating economic growth and helping promote exports to other countries. China’s “business is business” approach is welcome by comparison to western aid providers who often link their contributions to changes in the Ethiopian legal and political structure.
It was under this framework that the first 300 volunteers selected from among 10,000 applicants to a new Chinese government program arrived in Ethiopia, Seychelles, and Zimbabwe in 2007. They would perform a variety of work including teaching Chinese, introducing hospital staff to traditional Chinese medicine, and aiding in poultry farming.
According to Chinese embassy data, currently, there are some 60,000 Chinese living in Ethiopia. The community is largely involved in commerce with some working in telecom or railway construction and others owning businesses. The Chinese ambassador La Yifan credited the Chinese community with creating one million local jobs.
Wang is the Tofu producer (making 1000 pieces of Tofu every morning and sold out already before 8:00 a.m.) and vendor at the open air Rwanda Market selling non-typically Ethiopian products: pork, tofu, and Chinese vegetables. The first sight of Rwanda Market is that of a typical weekday African market with cheap Chinese imports everywhere. What stands out here though is that there are many Chinese customers. His concern: “What is troubling here is foreigners are not allowed to engage in retail business on their own. The law does not allow me to set up a shop like this, mine is officially an Ethiopian business. I know the government wants to protect its own middle class and avoid unfair competition. Also the bureaucracy is very slow, the inscrutable regulatory rules, and, undeniably, in recent years corruption is booming.”
In the Rwanda zone of Addis, there is also probably the biggest Chinese super-market in Addis Ababa. The manager, a young Chinese in her twenties from Shanghai. She said: “I am quite all right here, I have many Chinese friends here too. I have no real idea whether I am going to stay for the long run but so far Ethiopia is really treating me well.”
Ed.’s Note: This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu.
Contributed by Zecharias Getahun