M. Kaag u.a. (Hgg.): Destination Africa

Destination Africa. Contemporary Africa as a Centre of Global Encounter

Kaag, Mayke; Khan-Mohammad, Guive; Schmid, Stefan
Africa-Europe Group for Interdisciplinary Studies
265 S.
€ 70,62
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Jodie Yuzhou SUN, Department of History, Fudan University

When the contributors first gathered at Leiden in 2018, immigration was triggering intense debates in Europe. Its final publication in 2021 witnessed the global pandemic outbreak that has since early 2020 cast doubts on global mobility. It can be said that those people mentioned in this book, regardless of nationalities, professions, or social classes, have more or less suffered from this crisis. Although the editors were frank about the unpredictable nature of a post–Covid-19 world, we have been reminded that global encounters cannot be taken for granted. This edited volume, by Mayke Kaag, Guive Khan-Mohammad, and Stefan Schmid, is a timely contribution to our understanding of contemporary Africa as a centre of global connectivity.

Besides the introduction, the book consists of ten chapters, which can be roughly divided into three sections: chapters 2 to 4 deal with “the rise of Africa and the diversification of global powers” from the perspectives of “historicity, motivations and itineraries”; chapters 5 to 8 discuss “current encounters” with a focus on “African agency”; finally, chapters 9 to 11 set out to identify and disentangle African agencies. Each chapter looks at a particular aspect of the flows from and towards Africa. Connected with one and another, these chapters naturally build up a convincing case that “Africa is not a marginal continent but a contemporary centre of global encounter, shaped by history and shaping the future” (p. 9). This book made a clear departure from the emerging literature that centres on China by including not only other Asian but also European and American actors. In this way, it rejects the simplistic view of seeing China as an aggressor to Africa and further contextualizes the global influences and limits to African agency “in the plural”. The diversity of cases, located in African countries such as Cameroon, Senegal, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso, also enriches the research spectrum.

Both chapters 2 and 4 discuss education in Africa. Given that India and Malaysia are unusually higher education providers, perhaps a comparison with other Asian countries might be revealing, especially when compared to the abundant literature on China’s Confucius Institutes in Africa.[1] Sophia Thubauville best summarizes the transitional nature of “Indian educators” in Ethiopia from being a “brother of faith” to a “commercial recruit” (p. 43). To what extent could such analysis be applied to other emerging powers in Africa? Chapter 3 provides solid historical research about development workers from the two Germanys in socialist Tanzania. Eric Burton uses “expatriates” at the start and then engages with the typical accusations against white, Western “volunteers” (p. 43). Though “other development workers” were allegedly accused, terms like “expatriate”, “volunteer”, and “development worker” have been used interchangeably. It would have been helpful to make more distinctions about these concepts themselves. China’s historical relations with Africa in the socialist era were usually framed under the umbrella of “aid to Africa” rather than “development”. How do we understand “development aid” and “socialist aid” as two different but historically interconnected concepts?

“African agency” is central to the rest of the chapters. While it is tempting to assume its existence, it is more important to assess its limits and diversity in specific cases. In chapter 6, Ute Röschenthaler argues that African traders mainly drive the consumption and expectations of consumers of Asian goods (p. 127). A particular issue is how the so-called country labels are attributes for quality. While Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with Cameroon between 1960 and 1971 was discussed, it was unclear to what extent those earlier impressions of Taiwanese products continue to shape more contemporary understanding of “Chinese” products. How effectively do Cameroonian customers distinguish products made in mainland China from those made in Taiwan or Hong Kong? Having read chapter 9 on Chinese motorcycle companies in Burkina Faso, the reader learnt that a land-locked Western African country with 20 million people is the biggest market for motorcycles in the West African Economic and Monetary Union. If “social capital” is considered the key element to its success, does it function with the same logic in other African countries for other sectors/industries? After their respective studies of the Lions Clubs in Africa and Cameroon’s Kribi Deep Seaport construction, chapters 10 and 11 seem to offer quite pessimistic views of African political and social elites in fundamentally challenging the existing power imbalances.

As many of the contributors are trained as anthropologists and sociologists or have multidisciplinary backgrounds, the book breaks away from a state-centred approach to focus on micro-level actors. For interpersonal connections, emotions have been taken seriously. In the case of China–Zambia labour relations, Di Wu attempts to supplement C. K. Lee’s seminal work with the introduction of the “affective” component of relations at work.[2] In chapter 7, Alice Aterianus-Owanga examines touristic encounters between African artists and Western students by engaging with the idea of “affective circuits” [3], which complement or even get mixed up with material and economic exchanges. Other social dimensions like gender and race were equally important factors. In chapter 8, Miriam Arriaga devotes a significant amount of space to reflect on racism in the practices of intercultural translation, but perhaps the issue of sexuality could be further elaborated upon.

There are indeed many interesting details of those distinct yet fascinating stories of this book. It would largely improve the reading experience if more visual images could be supplemented, such as the dress code for the Lions Clubs in chapter 10 and Sabar dance tourism in chapter 7. All in all, this new volume will certainly encourage more vibrant discussions about Africa’s interactions with the wider world.

[1] Amy Stambach / Aikande Kwayu, Confucius Institutes in Africa, or How the Educational Spirit in Africa is Re-Rationalised Towards the East, in: Journal of Southern African Studies, 43 (2017) 2, pp. 411-424; Kenneth King, China’s Aid & Soft Power in Africa. The Case of Education & Training, Rochester, N.Y., 2013.
[2] C. K. Lee, The Specter of Global China. Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa, Chicago 2017.
[3] Jennifer Cole / Christian Groes (eds.), Affective Circuits. African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration, Chicago 2016.

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