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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Chinese Merchants Thrive in Senegal, Where People ‘Needed Stuff’

DAKAR, Senegal — Fresh out of college and frustrated by the paucity of job prospects at home, Cao Qihan, 23, did what generations of ambitious Chinese had done before him: He rolled the dice and ventured to a far-off, utterly unfamiliar land, where people speak languages he doesn’t understand.

But unlike compatriots chasing dreams of a better life in North America, Europe or Australia, Mr. Cao bought a plane ticket to Senegal, a country of 14 million that has about 2,000 Chinese residents.

Mr. Cao had relatives in Dakar, the capital, but little idea of what to expect.

“We Chinese think Africa is uncivilized and dangerous, but it’s turned out to not be so bad,” he said just weeks after his arrival, as he stuffed dumplings at his family’s restaurant in Dakar’s expanding Chinatown. “I think I’ll stay awhile.”

These days, more than 200 Chinese-owned shops line Boulevard du Général de Gaulle, a gritty thoroughfare that slices through the middle-class neighborhood of Centenaire and ends at the city’s imposing Grand Mosque.

The cramped shops heave with rhinestone-slathered jewelry, stacks of plastic kitchenware and women’s shoes adorned with bows and bling. Everything is made in China and few items sell for more than $5.

Unlike vibrant Chinatowns the world over, Dakar’s Chinese enclave is a charmless, rough-and-tumble affair that offers little appeal to those not in the market for wholesale goods. There are no Buddhist temples and few restaurants, and most of the day its sidewalks have a decidedly languid feel.

Most shopkeepers are originally from Henan, a poor, densely settled central province whose population of 94 million rivals that of Egypt.

Within China, migrants from Henan are often regarded with distrust, victims of discrimination based on a vague but commonly held notion that they are prone to criminality. Many toil in the most menial of jobs, working as truck drivers, farmers or laborers.

“This is how life is for us,” said Zhu Haoming, 58, a brash, fast-talking man with an easy smile. “We have to leave home to make a living. If you find a good place, you end up pulling in your friends, even if it’s on the other side of the world.”

A pioneer of sorts, Mr. Zhu arrived here 17 years ago from Henan to set up a trade show for Chinese products. He never left.

“I realized that China had lots of stuff and the people here needed stuff, so it was a good match,” he said.

Mr. Zhu opened a shop selling artificial flowers and unintentionally became the nucleus of a growing Chinese presence in Dakar that has come to dominate the wholesale trade in low-cost consumer goods.

For strivers seeking opportunity abroad, Senegal seldom makes the list of choice destinations, but the ease of obtaining a visa often trumps the misgivings that many Chinese have about Africa.

New arrivals usually start off working for a wholesaler they know from home and then set off on their own as soon as they have saved enough for their first batch of goods.

Life is seldom easy. The hours are long, the profits thin and the loneliness unrelenting. Men often come on their own, but even married couples tend to leave children back home to be raised by grandparents.

On a recent afternoon, as the midday heat thinned the sidewalk crowds to a trickle, bored shopkeepers watched Chinese films on their phones while their Senegalese workers dusted the shelves and chatted with one another in Wolof, the lingua franca, which few Chinese understand.

My query about life in Senegal uncorked a torrent of complaints from the bosses: too many competitors, too few customers and rising prices for the merchandise bought during annual buying trips to China.



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