China’s Cross-Cultural Dialogue with Africa

09 Sep 2019

By Richard Moleofe

Africa’s biggest trading partner happens to be China and this has not occurred by mistake. This has come as a result of a trading and cultural interaction of several decades if not centuries. The event of the Belt and Road which is not a new thing marks the long journey that China and the continent of Africa are taking and that is one step at a time.

In 1976 during the 10th anniversary of Botswana’s independence, China sent a team to Botswana to take part. This comprised of a football team as well as a dance troupe. For those who were around at that time, they will never forget a 10-0 drabbing by China’s football team on our national team. That was supposed to be humiliating but it was not.

The people of Botswana were mesmerised by the skill of the Chinese football team but above all they were amazed at their names. This is where I picked my Chinese name as Chen Chan Fu. Fu was a brilliant star and a prolific goal scorer. Oh, the memory of this event will never erase from the minds of our people. 

Between now and then, China has given Botswana several hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. So far not many citizens of this country remember the amounts given as aid but they can still remember the visit by the 1976 football team. This underlines the importance of people to people exchanges.

China is doing great business with Africa and the interesting thing is that even countries like Botswana have seen a significant growth in that area. But there is an existing chasm in as far as communication is concerned. Communication is not simply a matter of language. There is an existing gap in exercising good cross-cultural communication.

Cross-cultural communication is the manner in which two differing cultures interact and find common cause in their relationship. Different cultures always hold differing worldviews. In this case worldview can be described in the simplest term as a window through which we view the world. Worldview is often informed by the environment of culture and tradition.

Clearly there are a few impediments in the manner in which the two cultures relate and understand each other. This calls for a case of more concerted efforts in trying to bridge the cultural expanse between China and Africa.

It is imperative to understand that a lot of cultures think of Africa as a single country with a uniform culture. But this is a serious misunderstanding. Worse more, people elsewhere think Africans speak one language. Of course this continent enjoys a diverse linguistic and cultural environment.

China’s approach has been to teach the people of Africa Mandarin as a way of penetrating the continent. University across the continent are enrolling students in this language and the government of China is spending big in this aspect of language.

The discord in communication between China and Africa is not in the language aspect. It is important to address the linguistic barrier but cross-cultural communication is far more impacting than language. It also has lasting consequences than language itself.

We must admit that Chinese or to be precise, Mandarin is far much complicated for most Africans. This impacted by the fact that most in this continent are schooled in the Roman alphabet. Transitioning to oriental characters becomes a more challenging feat.

They say the best way to learn a language faster and more efficiently is in bed. Well, this saying came before the advent of AIDS and that is no longer the case. But the best way to learn culture is to be embedded in the way people live.

I attempted studying French and I dismally failed. They say the best way to learn French is to experience the culture of the people. But this is true of every language in Africa. We discover this when we attempt to translate certain words. That is when we discover that a single word in the vernacular can translate to a paragraph.

The Chinese pride themselves in their ancient history. I was seated next to my Chinese host who shared with me his family tree going as far back as the 16th century. I truly felt like a rat in a dark hole because I can only trace my family two centuries back. But most Africans are like that when it comes to genealogies.

Most Africans speak English as a second language and often conceive words cognitively in the vernacular before it is translated into the second language. The trick occurs when that is passed on to the third person from an oriental culture. This is where it is lost.

It is in this context that the Chinese business person needs to grasp the complexities of language spoken within a given cultural environment. Chinese cities are bustling with activity day and night. But coming to Botswana, there is a common saying that goes; “there is no hurry in Botswana.”

In Africa time is relative and it is often measure by the hours of daylight. So they say in summer there is more time than in winter when daylight last for fewer hours. For Africans, things work easier when you make appointments as according to sunrise or twilight. This happens regardless of the fact that chronometers are common in this continent. The instrument that measures time remains in the mind.

China should not use the old approach of flooding countries with money and failing to connect with the people. The example of the 1976 visiting football team from China fits so well in creating cross-cultural bridges. But the approach of the China we now know with a much better economy than four decades ago seems to care little about cross-cultural aspects.

There is need to bring Chinese volunteers into the continent to begin work with communities. That will help change attitudes toward the Chinese business people who are considered as exploiters. The truth is; we can realise Chinese investment in a better light only when cross-cultural understanding exists.