[VICE] Chinatown Syndrome: Inside the Ugandan Mall at the Center of Chinese Investments
VICE Magazine, May 2016
Chinatown Syndrome: Inside the Ugandan Mall at the Center of China's East African Investments
VICE Magazine, May issue, 2016
Mariam Namata's face was dappled with sweat when she arrived for a job interview at Sunshine Foods, a company that claimed to be Uganda's first homemade chips manufacturer. It was October 2015, a fierce summer month in the country's capital, Kampala, and she was nervous. The company's Chinese boss sat where he conducted most of his business, at one end of a row of four chairs that had been welded together, near a trash can that contained cigarette stubs.
Namata, a 24-year-old woman with a delicate nose and bleached curls, took the seat next to him and introduced herself in Mandarin. She explained that she had studied international finance at Shenyang University, in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning, and asked if he had grown used to eating matoke, an East African dish of steamed green bananas. The boss clenched a smile, and in less than ten minutes, the interview ended. Namata had been hired as the company's new translator, administrator, and accountant, and she was shown her desk, next to the room's most remarkable feature: a shelf displaying onion-flavored Happy Crisps, tomato-flavored Pastoral Crisps, and beef-flavored Whirlwind Potato Chips.
Sunshine Foods is headquartered in Mukwano Mall, a brutalist structure that sprung up six years ago in the center of the city's financial district, a built-up neighborhood where motorcycle taxis peel from banks, supermarkets, salons, and offices. There are some 700 shops inside the mall—wholesale traders selling plastic wares, leather, plywood, ball bearings—and the third floor is reserved for a row of dormitory-style homes, occupied largely by Chinese shop owners, who sometimes live four to a room. Their windows overlook an open-air courtyard. There were plastic buckets with live crabs and dinner tables fitted with Lazy Susans. People communicated on WeChat, baijiu is the drink of choice, laptops streamed soap operas from Hunan TV, and men attacked imaginary fish on gaming consoles flown in from Beijing. Security guards with shotguns patrol the gates of the mall.
Thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs, following a trail of billions of dollars in state-led investment, had already poured into Uganda, and Mukwano, which means "friend" in the country's major indigenous language, Luganda, was turning into a self-sustaining universe designed for them. It was a society of small bosses—owners of gaming parlors, restaurants, supermarkets, travel agencies—that stood firmly on the shoulders of its underclass, the Ugandans who worked as translators, cooks, waiters, cleaners, guards, and assistants.