Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Girl Gets Her Hair Cut in China…

…and the effects are felt across the world.
During my first day in Douala I noticed a Qingqi motorcycle, the Chinese brand that I rode with my friends in China in 2006. Now keen to see what other brands were represented in Cameroon, I started to keep track. Indeed, there were quite a few Qingqi K50s (as well as a knock-off, a Qyngqi), and looking around the city, the motorcycles read like any city in China: Sanlin, Lifan, Kymco, and Nanfang being the most common.
Many bikes are modified or given fake nameplates, including a couple Wonda bikes, whose font looks just like that of Honda.

Waiting for passengers, Foumban

The Chinese connection didn’t end there. As I explored the markets of Douala, Kumba, and Nkongsamba, it was obvious where most of the goods were coming from. Truckloads of brightly colored plastic sandals are for sale in the markets. A Chinese specialty. Soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, tissues, shoes, luggage, fans, televisions, VCD players, speakers, plastic chairs, and of course the ubiquitous knockoff football jerseys and name brand clothing, all made in China. A handful of “Chinglish” shirts seem to have made the journey as well, which seem to be worn with as much pride and innocent ignorance as they are in China.
I’ve been stunned by the seemingly infinite patterns, colors, and styles that Cameroonian women wear in their hair. The braids alone are woven into countless intricate and physics-defying styles that I have never seen imitated on the streets in America or on television. As my Congolese-Swiss friend Jessica later explained, the hair artists seem to forget how to create some of these styles when they leave Africa. Braids are just part of the picture, however. Woven into the braids, or woven into normal hair, are countless other styles of hair. Some of them seem to be made from plastic, but others are so downright convincing that it seems perfectly plausible that the funky flip the woman on the bus is sporting is her natural hair. In the marker, it was apparent how this all works.
Sure enough, in the markets, I've seen shops with large varieties of packaged hair extensions for sale. Looking at the packaging, the more expensive offerings are labeled with the assurance that they are 100% human hair. And all of the packages are labeled as Made In China.
It only stands to reason. With 1.6 billions heads of stick-straight, black hair, it seems a natural industry to take the longer clippings, style them as needed, and sell them to the thriving market in Africa.
The forced community of more than a dozen Cameroonians sharing a single mini van to get from one city to the next leads to some fascinating conversations. On the trip from Limbe to Buea (pronounced Boo-Yah!) a cop at a routine traffic stop took a particular interest in my passport. He never asked for the expected bribe, but took quite a bit of time paging through the booklet and examining every page, despite the protests of the crowd on the bus.
“Please, we beg of you to allow us to leave, we’ll be late!” shouted one woman. The cop finally returned the passport and as soon as the van door closed, the entire crowd got into a heated discussion about what had happened. Every person had something to say and offered it up to the rest of the bus. Some spoke in Pidgin, some spoke in English, some in French, and others in their local dialects. Two men carried on long after the others, mainly in English, discussing Cameroon’s corrupt government and police force, and centering the debate on whether “this is inevitable or whether we have done this to ourselves”. The men seemed to agree on their own country’s poor leadership in creating a difficult living situation despite a country rife with natural resources such as rubber, pineapples, bananas, timber and their port.
Engaging me, the man asked why I was in Cameroon.
“Well, just to see it, really.”
“And so you came to swallow some dust with us!”
It was true: we were on an abhorrent road, pitted every few feet and filled with loose, red dirt. With most of the windows open to add some moving air to the tightly packed bodies which were sweating all over each other, the dirt breezed right through the vehicle and stuck to the wet surfaces of our skin. The man explained that the road was under construction, based on new innovations the Cameroonians were trying to adopt based on work they'd seen by outside companies that had recently done major road construction in Cameroon. Where were those companies from? China, naturally.

Roads wreak havoc on cars

It turns out that Chinese road construction crews were contracted in to create high quality roads. Rather than employ local resources, they brought their own men, trucks, tools, and materials. “They even brought their own tar,” he explained.
It was unfortunate that the deal was arranged that way. I would guess that the Chinese knew their efficiency would be reduced by having to employ or mentor the locals, though it would have benefited the Cameroonians better if they had. As it happened, the man explained to me that only a few Cameroonians were able to learn the Chinese methods of road construction, and that they were to pass it on to the local crews for future work.
Later, in Kumba, I met a man named Elvis who explained to me the relationship of the Cameroonians and the Chinese.
“Well to be honest with you, they help us, but I really do not like their policies. They come to do fishing near the port in Limbe. In the past, we had small boats and all the fish we needed. Now they come with huge boats and there aren’t enough fish remaining for people to eat anymore. The prices are now huge, imagine paying 2000 CFA ($4) for a fish! How can someone feed their family?!”
Once again, it was apparent that Chinese efficiency has both positive and negative effects. For the benefit of Cameroon, and for the world at large, I can only hope that sustainable relationships are developed that have positive impacts down the road. In the meantime, in case you needed a reminder about whose millennium this is fixing to be, once again it is China that is cashing in at the moment.

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