Chinese Cooking

Small development nonprofits like Karimu must do their work on landscapes shaped by more powerful actors. An article by Howard French in the May issue of The Atlantic probes the capacity of China to alter the conditions for less muscular actors in Africa.

Because the two Tanzanian villages in which Karimu has concentrated its efforts lie pretty close to the middle of nowhere, I detect no sense of Chinese influence there. The villagers call their cooked green vegetable dish “Chinese,” but otherwise I recall only a single allusion to the Asian superpower. Our interpreter, Sifaeli Kaaya, who owns one of Bacho’s two most productive farms, tells us that the Swahili word for “white person”—muzungu—also applies to Chinese. In Tanzania’s bush, it seems, the fragmented world beyond stands such a vast distance away that the crucial distinctions of that wider world collapse. Americans, Chinese, British—apparently they all look alike from the perspective of the village.

But in the city one does not merge the white person’s identity with that of an Asian. When we pass through Arusha, a city of over a million, our Tanzanian guides alert us to its Indian-dominated commercial districts. And in the much bigger, much busier Dar es Salaam, as French’s article makes clear, one cannot escape the Chinese presence. French and an envious British construction foreman observe “tall buildings coming up” on Dar es Salaam’s waterfront, with “nearly a dozen large cranes looming over construction sites.” The Chinese must improve Africa’s seaport facilities to ease export of the basic commodities—a third or more of the world’s total reserves lie beneath African soil—craved by China’s mushrooming economy. So far the crown jewel of Chinese investment in Dar es Salaam is the gleaming national sports stadium, holding up to sixty thousand spectators, which President Hu Jintao opened a little over a year ago.

Does the Chinese hunger for Africa’s natural resources extend to its land? This prospect generates intense debate. French quotes remarks made three years ago by the head of China’s Export-Import Bank in which he promised to support displaced Chinese farmers looking to resettle and even “become landlords” in Africa. Although the banker, Li Ruogu, retreated under criticism, anxiety flourishes throughout Africa over the possibility of an impending Chinese takeover of Africa’s rural economy.

I wish neither to feed such fears nor to rehash the tired argument over whether China’s amoral, gain-driven involvement with Africa will benefit Africans more than ostensibly high-minded Western approaches. I merely note the growing Chinese presence and suggest momentous consequences, whether for good or for ill, even in many places that, like Bacho and Dareda, seem marooned in the middle of nowhere. In fact one cannot easily find the middle of nowhere anymore because global capital has acquired the power to link anyplace to somewhere bigger.

During our stay in Bacho our volunteers go on a day-trip to see a remote, fractiously independent people called the Barabaig. Maybe two hours’ drive from the heartbreakingly beautiful green valleys and hills where Karimu does its work, the Barabaig tend cattle just about as lean as themselves on parched, hardscrabble mountains. The Barabaig diet consists almost entirely of maize and milk because they have nothing else and they can walk all day on a mouthful of water because they must. The women wear goatskin cloaks, live with genital cutting, and cook and clean while their men explain the Barabaig way of life to muzungu visitors.

The Barabaig men who explained themselves to Marianne and me said that she must be my favorite wife because I had brought none of the others with me. They asked what animals I hunt and what crops I grow and seemed to register incomprehension when I told them that I neither hunt nor farm. They had, I think, literally no idea how far away California was, or even the United States. Yet they would have had confidence that they could walk to California, however long it took, because walk is what they do, endlessly and uncomplainingly.

Their waterless environment supports little wildlife, so they noticed our attention quicken when they reported sighting hyenas the day before. Eager to please, they proposed a “short walk” with the chance of meeting up with the same hyenas. But up and down steep hillsides, over rough ground and through dense brush, even at a pace that obviously didn’t challenge the Barabaig, was more than Marianne and I could handle, especially since we still faced the hike back to our hired four-by-four—downhill, of course. We had shared breakfast with the Barabaig and in our four-by-four would find the lunch packed by our driver. Meanwhile the Barabaig would keep walking, reunited with their cattle after seeing us off. They would walk all day to find sparse grazing for their cattle and finally, late at night and with the cattle safely corralled, they would stop walking and eat their second and last meal of the day, maize and milk again.

Once Marianne and I spent a night with the Barabaig. From the low-roofed tent that our guide had set up for us, we listened for a long time as a Barabaig man and his eldest wife—her name was Hanjit—played with the windup flashlight we had given them. They would laugh as they turned the crank and the light intensified and then they would laugh a little more, but mostly talk at just above a whisper, during the few minutes of bright light until they needed to turn the crank again.

Marianne and I tell Karimu’s volunteers, before they visit the Barabaig, that these people live like they did centuries ago or even thousands of years ago. Yet how isolated are the Barabaig, really? It turns out that their traditional homeland is not the mountains but, rather, the Basotu Plains below. During the 1980s, however, the Canadian government assisted Tanzania’s government in founding the Tanzania Canada Wheat Programme (TCWP), designed to raise in-country wheat production and thereby decrease Tanzania’s need to buy imported wheat. The coming of TCWP meant forcible removal of thousands of Barabaig from a hundred and fifty square miles of fertile grazing land onto the rockier soil of the mountains above. As Charles Lane and Jules Pretty write in “Displaced Pastoralists and Transferred Wheat Technology in Tanzania” (, resettlement of the Barabaig on the mountains’ less yielding soil “has undermined the rotational grazing system, causing problems for Barabaig pastoral production.”

A lot hinges on Lane’s and Pretty’s critique of TCWP’s colossal scale and on their assertion that “smallholder production of wheat using oxen is much more efficient at using available resources and makes more economic sense.” If true, this claim would discredit the utilitarian argument supplying the only possible justification of TCWP’s human costs to the Barabaig. I want to make a different kind of point here, though: if the Canadian and Tanzanian governments found and moved the Barabaig, then the Chinese can also reach into the most remote corners of Africa. This may or may not bode well for Africa’s future. But it is certain that small development nonprofits like Karimu which maintain presence in Africa will eventually brush up against the incomparably larger Chinese presence, even deep in the bush.—Don Stoll


About Don Stoll

Don and his wife, Marianne Kent-Stoll, are co-founders of the Karimu International Help Foundation. They established Karimu in 2008 at the request of the people of Dareda Kati Village, in the Manyara Region of northeastern Tanzania. Karimu is devoted to working with the residents of Dareda Kati in order to satisfy their development needs, as defined by the villagers themselves.
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One Response to Chinese Cooking

  1. jf says:

    you are a wonderful human being with a beautiful brain.

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