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Review: ‘Black Ghosts’ by Noo Saro-Wiwa

Reviewer: Mphuthumi Ntabeni (LitNet)

Black Ghosts by Noo Saro-Wiwa
ISBN: 9781838856946
Format: Trade Paperback

A well-travelled British-Nigerian woman, Noo Saro-Wiwa, decides to investigate what she calls the “Sino-African fault line” up close by travelling to China to get first-hand experience of the “cultural tectonic plates”. Without much preparation or knowing anybody in the Chinese province of Guangzhou, which has the highest population of Africans living in China, she takes off on a plane to Hong Kong. From Hung Hom Station, in the Kowloon area, she boards a train to Guangzhou on mainland China. She has heard about the disdain the Chinese have for foreign cultures and their dislike for dark skins, “so much they virtually mummify themselves to avoid getting suntans”. She reads on social media that the derogatory Chinese term for black people is hei gui/hak gwei, which simply translates to “black ghosts” or “black devils”. Saro-Wiwa wants to see how the African immigrants cope with and navigate these attitudes. At the same time, she wants to learn more about the mysterious mainland China. She exquisitely achieves all this. In this informative book, she reports about it through her supernatural observational powers. Supernatural regarding not only her skill of recording the impressions she collects around China, but also her neutral and objective attitude towards provocative situations that would have got the goat of those of us with less strength or tolerance.

The Africans we meet in China in this book are mostly Nigerians with different axes to grind, including their own extant prejudices against the Chinese. On top of that, add their own tribal rivalries between Igbo and Yoruba, which they carry into this Chinese cut-throat, dog-eat-dog, capitalistic, entrepreneurial environment. We learn about their daily struggles trying to strike it rich through business by buying nick-nacks to ship and sell back in African markets. Read about their visa expiry ordeals and raids by Chinese officials, forcing them to live and exist in dark alleys as illegals. Or, for the quickest shortcuts for visa renewals, they marry Chinese locals whose relatives treat them as ATM machines and accept them. We meet African students who are studying in China under not-so-cosy conditions as during the Mao revolution era that made them the envy of the native Chinese. We learn about the oppressive suspicion which even legit African professionals work under as second-grade citizens to the Chinese natives, who have no confidence in skills. And we learn about the infiltration of Christianity into the dry spiritual realm of the Chinese materialistic culture, which is not touched by ubuntu, like the values of Confucianism or the natural harmony between nature and humans as taught by Taoism. Saro-Wiwa believes that the Chinese and Nigerians have similar worldviews that are “governed by spiritual forces to some extent, but underpinned by a financial pragmatism and love of money”. We’re also told that the Chinese “anti-African prejudice [is] rooted in the seductive but incorrect theory that Africa’s economic underperformance is the result of an inherent inferiority of its people”. The Chinese believe that Sino-African relations are defined by Africa’s begging bowl syndrome, with no benefits to China. The economic reality, though, is that China benefits more from Africa’s raw materials. And Chinese Islamophobia conflates all dark-skinned people, especially Africans, “because the first Africans to migrate to China were Muslims from Mali”.

Apparently, both Chinese and Nigerians are class-conscious and in undeclared caste fault lines. Hukou is a Chinese system whereby rural Chinese cannot migrate to the cities without a hukou passport. This system, which makes rural Chinese feel like lower caste denizens, is designed to curb unnecessary urbanisation from people flocking to the cities without work. And it is the reason you hardly see unemployed and homeless people in Chinese cities. Also, the Chinese prejudice against foreigners includes almost all non-Han ethnic minority groups, like Uighurs, the Hlai, Tibetans and all the groups that make up the eight percent of non-Han Chinese people. What we also learn from this book is that though Chinese public society contains “male-dominated, sexist, gruff” ethnic and racial discrimination, most African foreigners, legal or illegal, refuse to go back home for several reasons, which include the shame of migrants coming back home without striking it rich abroad. They also feel more superior to the village boy who has no prospect of even finding a marriage partner for lack of material or worldly experience or riches. For immigrants in China, the availability of marriageable African women is also an anomaly; men compete for very few available women, often prompting them to consult professional Chinese sex workers for sexual relief.

Sanfei is a term used in Guangzhou Province for the crackdown against law-breaking foreigners. It is often abused by Chinese officials as a veil to hide racism. Nigerians get the worst of it, to the extent that some even prefer to call themselves Biafrans rather than Nigerians. They often get deported from China with five-year bans. It affects most adversely those who have Chinese spouses who cannot cope with humidity, mosquitoes and the unfamiliar diet of okra soup and cassava in Nigeria. The Chinese spouses would often go back to China with their children, leaving behind their partners and breaking up the families for good. Sometimes the Nigerian husbands have undeclared second wives, forcing the new Chinese wife into a polygamous arrangement she never bargained for. The Americans, on the other hand, have it rather easy, with easy-to-get ten-year visas in their American passports, and they are desired as hot potatoes by Chinese liberals who want to escape the oppressive authoritarian regime of the Chinese Communist Party.

Most Chinese have only a meagre 11 days of annual leave, so they flock like bees to their tourist spots during this internal tourist time known as ren shan ren hai – “people mountain people sea”. This is apparently “one of the greatest human (internal) migrations in the world, with hundreds of millions of people pouring out of the big industrial cities and heading back to their villages each year”. At this time, the train and bus schedules become impossible, with queues that take days to clear. Illegal African immigrants cannot travel by train or airline, because train ticket offices and airports require valid visas in foreign passports and identity documents. Hotels and accommodation venues require the same.

The part I liked most in the book was when the author explores China’s mainland landscape, which is mostly limestone karsts that feature on China’s banknotes. Those who’ve been to the Chinese rural mainland know it is made up of “stunning landscape: sinuous rivers and valleys, a patchwork of crop fields, and isolated peaks and groups, shrouded in mist like an ancient painting. It’s a landscape of strange beauty, … a combination of hummocks and karsts, and mesas.” Every tourist attraction during ren shan ren hai is log-jammed with domestic tourists, but our brave author managed to visit places of bucolic calm like Tianmen Mountain, joining “the hordes and shuffl[ing] along the cliff-hanging glass walkway, one of the highest in the world” – and, in the process, taking photos of faked tranquillity that told “a thousand lies”. If, as an African in particular, you visit China or want to learn more comprehensively about the lives of Africans in China, buy Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Black ghosts. You can thank me later.

Black Ghosts is available at the following retailers:

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