A piece of African pie in Chinese citiesBy BILLIE ODIDI | Friday, June 29 2012 at 14:48
There is no denying that the economic and political ties between most African countries and China have dramatically increased in recent years. But has that necessarily translated into closer social and cultural relations between the continent and its newfound ally? Have Africans exploited the new links with Beijing to sell their diverse culture to the largest consumer market in the world?
While the benefits of China’s economic and political might are visible in many corners of Africa, there remains relatively little people-to-people contact. There is an element of the mystic about the Chinese that is prevalent in the mind of the average person in Africa while the presence of a black person on the streets of any Chinese city often elicits quizzical looks among locals.
A trip to Beijing and Shanghai, the two biggest cities in China, recently, provided an opportunity to seek out the cultural menu and find out if there was any impact being created by African art, food or music. There was little in the way of anything connected with the continent until the name of a restaurant specialising in African cuisine in Beijing popped up.
The language barrier could probably be the biggest single hindrance to interaction in any Chinese city. The location of Turay’s Place located in the Sanlitun suburb, to the north of this massive metropolis covered by an efficient subway transportation system, seemed to be quite straightforward. But the journey itself turned out to be quite complicated.
I would suggest that any visitor to China should not just carry a map of locations you intend to visit in both English and Chinese, but also look up the phone number, which you could dial up when stuck. In this case a call to the number listed was answered by someone whose mastery of English did not go beyond the salutation of “Hello”
The directions only became clear after handing over the phone to the Cab driver who then seemed to understand the location of the restaurant. It was quite a relief when the sign with the name “Turay’s Africa House” appeared on a building in a narrow alley.
Turay Lamin arrived from his native Sierra Leone in 1994 and found that the craving for a home meal brought him and other friends together for regular dinner parties. He set up set up the first African restaurant in Beijing located in a quiet, out of the way location to maintain the intimate atmosphere of a meal with friends. His wife then trained Chinese cooks from her own family recipes until they became experts at preparing African dishes.
The African vibe is present from the moment you walk through the door and spot the Nigerian flag displayed prominently on the counter and a plaque bearing the Ghanaian welcome of “Akwaba” A Nigerian called Sonny is in charge and when I ask him about the experience of serving African dishes in the heart of Beijing, he points to a table occupied by what seems to be a European couple: “As you can see, we are not just African, we have an international clientele,” he says.
The menu offers a rich variety of main dishes, side dishes and soups. There is a dominance of mainly West African cuisine like the Ndole, a Cameroonian stew of fish and beef made with bitter leaves and peanuts. Other favourites include the plantains, peanut butter stew and the Jolof rice. As the meal is served, you can tap your feet to the steady supply of mainly old highlife and Afrobeat music playing from the speakers. The large television screen by the restaurant counter is switched to various African satellite TV channels.
While most of the foods can be sourced locally, there are a few exceptions, which can only be obtained from Africa. Yams and ingredients like Chili pepper and palm oil are some of the few food items that are imported from back home. After the experience of eating Chinese meals with chopsticks, it is also quite a relief to return to the good old African style of scooping food with the hands.
Turay’s Afrika House is part of an initiative that also includes a magazine lensAfrika and a band called Afrokoko Roots. The magazine reports on events and people connected to Sino-African economic and cultural relations.
The Afrobeat band, Afrokoko Roots performs regularly at Turay’s Africa House as well as various other venues in Beijing. The band was formed by Nigerian musician, Sunny Dada, who saw the opportunity to introduce African music to Chinese audiences.
The band now comprises 15 members of diverse nationalities, Australian, American, Brazilian, Chinese and African playing a mix of Afrobeat, Reggae and House music. Sunny Dada also runs a drumming and dancing school where hundreds of Chinese and foreigners in Beijing enroll to take lessons on playing African rhythms.
“Honestly, the way people here respond to our music is amazing. They love it, the dancing, the drumming, the singing,” says Sunny. “Whenever we play, they always ask for more and I have not for one moment regret setting up this band in Beijing.”
Meanwhile, several big cities in China will be reverberating to the African beat until the end of the year. Seven Chinese Government agencies are currently holding a series of performances and exhibitions dubbed “African Cultures in Focus 2012”.
Tanzania’s National Service Art troupe, JKT (Jeshi La Kujenga Taifa) performed at the Tshingua University, which has the largest number of international graduate students in China, to mark the opening of the biennial event at the end of May. They have since followed this show with other concerts held at the Beijing Chemistry University and the National Museum of China.
The JKT has performed before Chinese audiences before, having first held a show in Beijing eight years ago. The troupe is renowned for showcasing traditional Tanzanian dances like the Lipango from the Wamalila, the Ngokwa of the Wamakonge, The Kyaso from Zanzibar and Mngodo of the Wakwere.
During the opening concert, they wowed the assembled Ambassadors from no less than 20 African countries as they danced and sang in Kiswahili in praise of the long established ties between Tanzania and China. The troupe was established in 1967 by the National Youth Service and has mastered performances of dances from more than 120 communities in Tanzania.
Apart from Tanzania, the third African Cultures in Focus” also features cultural groups from Zimbabwe, Senegal and South Africa. The event, which runs all the way to December, will be traveling across Chinese cities, from Beijing, Tianjin to Nanjing and Yinchuan.
At China’s National Museum in Beijing an exhibition of selected African sculptures displays more than 500 artworks donated by art collector Xie Yanshen. The exhibits, which are mainly drawn from West and Central Africa, include statues, masks and other ornaments. The Chinese collector has donated more than 4,000 African woodcarvings to the museum since 2007.
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