Inside the Ugandan Mall at the Center of China’s East African Investments
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.
Namata appreciated that China drove dollars into her country. In Uganda, youth unemployment was as high as 60 percent, according to some studies. A Chinese presence meant jobs. For Namata, the only drawback was that the Chinese were known to “bark at their employees.” The business partner of the man interviewing Namata, a woman named Lin Apo, had been listening in on the conversation from her office nearby, paging through files, but she did not rise to join in until it steered to salary. There were enough horror stories about insolent Chinese employers in Uganda, but in the moment, Namata was just grateful to be offered a job in the city. Candidates with her profile routinely ended up in makeshift offices erected inside cargo containers in the countryside, where the Chinese government was building highways, railway tracks, refineries, and power plants.
Namata’s new boss, who liked to be addressed as Madame Apo, expressed concerns about trusting her with cash as the company’s accountant. Within the first hour of meeting each other, Lin negotiated Namata’s salary down from 1 million shillings a month to 800,000, approximately $240. Lin withdrew her lunch and travel allowance, arguing that she was too young and inexperienced. A woman her age would likely make only up to a third of that salary if she worked for a Ugandan employer, Namata estimated. “Since it’s Uganda,” Namata said. “I said OK, I have to get some experience.”
Lin Apo, the visionary behind Sunshine Foods, had groomed herself to play the part of an archetypal Chinese businesswoman. She almost always seemed determined to compose a facial expression so controlled that it conveyed nothing. She was polite but short-spoken. As Madame Apo, she was businesslike and hoped to be seen as someone who carried herself with grace, even in denim overalls.
But 13 years ago, she was a young woman who had trouble hiding her anxieties. In 2003, the moment she touched down at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, she began having second thoughts about moving to Africa. The new international passenger terminal had opened the same year with dramatic fanfare to become one of Africa’s largest. But instead of the quick transit advertised, airline staff whisked Lin away to spend a night in the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, without explanation. She carried one suitcase: clothes, cosmetics, and a few packets of antibiotics and traditional Chinese medicine to manage tropical fevers and the flu. She was 23 and had never left China before.
Everywhere she turned, she found Ethiopian security guards toting machine guns. That night, alone in a hotel bed 6,000 miles from home, the horror stories she heard of Africa-a place apparently so backward that even China paled in comparison-came back to haunt her. She wondered if some of them were true. Back home, even policemen were unarmed, and except for on TV, she had never seen firearms before. She tried not to think about why they might be necessary. Two days before, Lin had been in the warmth of a room full of family and friends, celebrating her graduation from Hunan University, the modern successor to one of China’s oldest and most storied academies.
In the mountainous southern province of Hunan, where Lin grew up, food defined the culture. Red chili peppers materialized on almost every dish, and Hunanese women were meant to embody the spirit of the cuisine. Songs have been written about the province’s “spicy girls,” who were praised, and sometimes feared, for their blazing spirit, enthusiasm, and independence. Lin did not immediately fit the stereotype. As a girl, she fantasized about getting far away from home. She came of age in the 1980s, witnessing China slowly and painstakingly open up after decades of isolation. Yet, she figured, if she stayed in her hometown of Changsha, a provincial capital of about 7 million people, she would never get to see the world. Many of her friends had already left; “going out” had become a trend, prompted by the government’s Go Out policy, introduced in 1999 to promote investment overseas. That mindset trickled down from fledgling state-owned enterprises to individuals like her. At home, the labor market’s upper stratum was becoming saturated, but overseas, becoming a lao ban, or “boss,” was still a realistic goal. Lin had hoped to travel to Europe or the United States, but Western visas were notoriously hard to obtain, so instead she headed to Uganda to become the personal assistant to a Chinese hotelier.
Her parents furiously protested, reminding her of a time not too long ago, when Uganda’s President Idi Amin expelled entire neighborhoods of Asian merchants from Kampala. In August 1972, Amin accused Asians in Uganda of exploiting the economy, calling them “bloodsuckers.” At the time, the Asian community in the country was largely made up of people of Indian descent who had arrived as indentured servants under British rule in the 19th century and later grown into a powerful merchant community. Amin’s government ordered them to leave within 90 days or face jail in military camps. How could Lin be sure it would not happen again? As a Chinese woman, and their only child, she ought to revere the tenets of filial piety, her parents pleaded.
“If all the time we listen to people, it’s going to stop you from doing anything,” Lin explained. “If you always hesitate, you know, to do a new thing, you will never find anything. It’s like, if Columbus hesitated, he would never have found America.”
Africa was no new discovery for the Chinese, however. The People’s Republic made a point of forging alliances across the continent, stressing that they too knew Africa’s humiliation as victims of “colonization by the capitalists and imperialists,” Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai said in 1955. Even as the country’s economy faltered through the early 1970s, Mao Zedong rolled out the $500 million TAZARA railway, once sub-Sahara’s longest, linking the port city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Zambia’s Central Province. Today, as China builds state-of-the-art megaprojects at breakneck speed across the continent, these rusting trains still rattle as a token of solidarity.
Over the past half century, the Chinese poured money and people into Uganda without a grand strategy. It started with prestige-project diplomacy, building the 40,000-seater Mandela National Stadium, constructing the 30-mile Entebbe-Kampala Expressway, and laying the foundation for a railway that would connect Uganda to Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Burundi. Soon, Chinese-owned enterprises began driving investment in the exploration of oil, mining, quarrying, forestry, fisheries, and power. China spent $33 million in Uganda in 2015 alone.
The Ugandan government, for its part, appreciated an investment-led approach from one developing country to another, part of what had become known as the Beijing Consensus. “Washington comes with aid, but there is a hidden hand,” explained Basil Ajer, director of the small and medium enterprises division at the Uganda Investment Authority, the agency tasked by Uganda’s government with facilitating foreign investment. “It has not transformed any country in the world.”
As China leapfrogged the United Kingdom and the United States to become sub-Saharan Africa’s largest investor, Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged last year that the country “absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists.” Charity was not a viable path to development. At best, it provided some jobs for the elites, and mostly for the expatriates. “With China, their strings are not so tight,” Ajer said. “Their relationship is purely economic, not to get into political issues or to affect our internal democracy.”
And along with the big companies, thousands of briefcase investors, who had heard about Uganda’s massive economic potential and increasing spending power, descended on the country. By the time Lin joined this group of neo-colonialists, Madame Min Fang, founder of a number of local businesses under the umbrella of Fang Fang Group, had already proved that in Uganda, even Chinese women could soar as entrepreneurs. Her hotel, in Kampala’s diplomatic neighborhood, was ground zero of China’s empire in Uganda. Two enormous lanterns glowed deep red in a city often pitch black at night. Inside, Min’s office was decorated with accolades: one of East Africa’s best enterprises in 2001, a certificate of excellence from the Ugandan government in 2002, Uganda’s top woman entrepreneur in 2003. She had been in the country for 26 years, rejecting a Canadian green card for a Ugandan passport. When Lin arrived in Uganda, the gold rush was still getting started. The sights flashing by her window-the majesty of Lake Victoria, the open sky, the fresh air-made her think. Where her friends back home had seen wilderness, she saw untapped potential.
Mariam Namata grew up in her maternal grandmother’s home in Kampala, a 20-minute motorcycle taxi ride away from Mukwano Mall. She shared the four-bedroom home with a platoon of cousins whose parents had emigrated overseas, promising to return to collect their children eventually. Namata’s parents had left her for the United States when she was eight. Her father was studying to become an engineer and her mother a doctor. When they came back to visit seven years later, she was in middle school. She had two brothers and a sister who had been born in the US. She had not yet met them. Her parents talked about bringing her to Denver, where they then lived, but they decided that she was too young to be uprooted. They would wait until she reached ninth grade, but when that time arrived, they figured she should stay behind until she finished high school. In her senior year, Namata told her parents she was ready to move to be with them, but her father urged her to pick a university anywhere other than the United States. “He was like, ‘If you come to the US, you’re going to depend on us all the time,'” she said. “So they said, ‘OK, choose any other country.'”
Namata was a Museveni baby. Her entire life, one man, Yoweri Museveni, had been at the helm of Uganda’s affairs. He reined in the political instability that afflicted her parents’ generation, unlocked the country’s natural resources, and invited foreign investment. His policies were thought to have bolstered Uganda’s economic welfare and propelled more Ugandans to enter the middle class, though the parameters of what constituted a middle class in Uganda were questionable. The African Development Bank, for instance, counted anyone who spent the equivalent of $2 a day part of Africa’s middle class. Each election cycle, Museveni promised to continue growth and development.
As China continues to pivot to Africa, the mall is at the threshold of becoming an antipode of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions, the hyper-globalized shopping complex through which up to a fifth of Africa’s cellphones have reportedly passed.
But his presidency had not done enough for people like Namata. Many of her friends had knitted together funds, from their family savings and high-interest loans, and started their own businesses-small shops selling secondhand clothes and shoes from Europe or electronics from China-but they sank as quickly as they started. A 2014 study by the International Labor Organization and the Uganda Bureau of Statistics found high rates of underemployment and irregular work and reported that 5 percent of Ugandan youth who were actively seeking work were jobless. Independent analyses, however, estimated the rate to be much higher-closer to 60 percent, according to the nonprofit Action Aid.
Namata was part of a small, privileged segment of Ugandan society. Even though she did not identify as upper middle class, she was aware of her privilege. Her parents, now expatriates, sent money home, and unlike many of her friends who had no option but to stay in Kampala, she could choose a university abroad. It was 2011, and she was 19. If she decided to pursue law, as she wanted, she could go to Canada or the United Kingdom, but visas to these countries came with notoriously long waits, sometimes up to nine months. Another option was India, but the idea did not excite Namata. Eventually, an uncle told her that China was set to become an economic powerhouse. Already, they had invested in Africa, developing infrastructure and exploring oil. This country was full of possibilities.
“Most of my friends were like, ‘Don’t go to China,'” Namata said. “‘It’s like Uganda,’ they said. ‘Exactly like Uganda. They have slums.’ I was like, Oh my God, what am I going to do? They don’t speak English.” But she concluded it was the best place to gain the skills she wanted. “I just want to be independent,” she said.
Namata spent three years at Shenyang University, studying international finance and learning Mandarin. During that time, she grew accustomed to the grandeur of Chinese hospitality and their curiosity about foreigners. In 2014, when she graduated, she applied to be an English tutor, the go-to expat job, where she was stung by the kind of casual racism that was the norm at Mukwano. “If you tell them, ‘I’m from Africa, and I want to teach English,’ they are like, ‘No,’ she said. “Even being black is OK as long as you tell them you are from the US, or Canada, or UK-any other country.” She watched enough Hollywood movies to know when to speed up a sentence and how to roll her r’s. She pretended to be American and got the job.
Despite finding a job in China, Namata began preparing the documents necessary to immigrate to the United States, still the final destination she had her sights set on. After working for a year in China, she chose to move back to Kampala last August and wait for the immigration papers to process. In the four years she was gone, she noticed how the city had changed at the hands of the Chinese. Construction camps had sprung up all over the city. By unfinished highways, men wearing helmets marked cccc, a Chinese state-owned construction company, huddled over enlarged maps and contracting plans. Supermarkets had separate aisles for Chinese products, and Kampala’s nightlife district now had karaoke bars.
“When I came back, it was like many Chinese,” she said. “I thought I was going to come back and just, like, see maybe ten Chinese in Uganda. But to my surprise, I saw so many.” The only difference, she said, was that the Chinese in Uganda were not as friendly as those in China.
At home, she found herself frustrated and bored. Her time in China changed something about the way her old friends saw her. One evening, as she was lying down in bed, her fingers skittering over an iPhone, a group of high school friends rummaged through her drawers. “Can I take this dress? Can I take these shoes?” she said, in a high-pitched voice to imitate them. “I was like, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, you can take anything.'” As soon as her old friends learned that she had returned from China, she said, they suddenly reached out. “Oh my God, do you have time for dinner?” she said in the same shrill voice. “And they don’t want to pay. They are like using you, actually using you.”
After two months of sitting around at home, Namata became restless. Josh James, a friend who graduated from the same university in Shenyang, now worked as an operations manager at a Chinese travel agency. He had made a career from his Chinese-language skills and had spoken openly about how he was paid more and treated better than other Ugandans. Mandarin had become hard currency in the city. Namata had the gift of speaking the language too, and she figured that could likely get her a well-paying job. She joined a WhatsApp chat group for Ugandan alumni of Chinese universities that James told her about. Within an hour, a text message flashed on her phone: “Hi Mariam, tomorrow meet me at Mukwano Mall.”
Amid the fears many Chinese immigrants harbored about living in Uganda, Mukwano Mall had become known as an oasis of safety. In late 2013, droves of Chinese rushed in from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, when the country tumbled into a civil war. As Uganda held presidential elections in February, shops in Mukwano shuttered in case violence broke out, though the country had been largely peaceful for three decades. “Being businessmen here, the only concern is the stability,” Lin said. “If things are not steady, I think people will not risk their lives to do things here.”
The immigrants employed by Chinese-government projects lived in cookie-cutter rooms inside makeshift townships close to their work sites, guarded by three-tier security. But Mukwano was the backwaters of migration, where Chinese entrepreneurs who came with little backing ended up. Mukwano Mall’s management employed its own army of security personnel. The mall had everything from supermarkets to salons within its walls. If you lived and worked here, you didn’t have reason to step out.
Sunshine Foods was a way to give Ugandans something to be proud about, Lin explained, sitting at her desk inside the mall. One wall of the office was used to display a poster of Golola Moses, a celebrity Ugandan kickboxer, grinning and bare chested, holding up three bags of Sunshine Crisps. “Yummy,” the poster declared. “My most favorite snack is Sunshine Foods.”
The company employed more than a hundred Ugandans at its factory on the road connecting Kampala to the eastern city of Jinja and ten at the front end in Mukwano Mall. “They are hardworking people,” Lin said, with a caveat. “They are a bit slow in the work.” The chips were made from local ingredients, mainly wheat, maize, and cassava-crops abundant in the region. But for Lin, they were more than chips; they were small, marketable pieces of her childhood. She had spent her youth in a China that was not as prosperous as it is now, and the experience allowed her to empathize with Ugandans. “Kampala somehow is a little bit like the time of 1980s in China,” she said.
Uganda still has a bad reputation among the Chinese, but Yu Bin, chairman of the Chinese Business Community of Uganda, an association of several thousand businessmen employed in the country, has worked hard to salvage it. He authored the only Mandarin biography on Museveni, President of the Permanent Snow on the Equator & the Pearl of Africa, accompanied with roughly 200 photos, most of them featuring the president in his signature farming hat. According to Yu, China set an example for countries like Uganda. His early memories of growing up in Nanjing, a northeastern city haunted by genocide and atrocities at the hands of Japanese troops in the 1930s, early in the Second Sino-Japanese War, were about the visceral feeling of hunger. When he was a kid during the Cultural Revolution, he said, one egg had to be eaten by two; special occasions meant one fish for the family that would be savored for days. But now, the China story was a development miracle, a formula that could be replicated in Uganda, a country with plenty of natural resources, he said.
When Mariam Namata returned to Kampala, there were many new signs of the Chinese presence. Men wearing helmets marked cccc, a Chinese state-owned construction company, huddled over enlarged maps and contracting plans. Supermarkets had separate aisles for Chinese products, and Kampala’s nightlife district now had karaoke bars.
Only a developing country could help another developing country, Yu insisted. Western aid money could disappear into someone’s pocket, but who could pocket a highway? “After thirty years, China changed everything,” he said. “In Uganda, if we open the door big, you also change a lot. You have to open the door.” Already, after China had been let in, Uganda had changed, he said. When he first arrived in the early 1990s, his Mercedes rumbled in the potholes. “Bom bom,” he laughed, pretending to be in a bouncing car. “But now you don’t see, most roads are good.”
Lin had reaped the benefits of entering Uganda early. With her husband, she opened a second business, the Nanjing Hotel. Dining tables were set up on the roof beneath gazebos, and they changed the carpets daily to announce the day of the week. Her children, a seven-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, would get to see the world without air-pollution masks. Perhaps the greatest privilege of living abroad was the fact that Lin was able to give birth to a second child while the One-Child policy was still in effect for those inside China. Outside the office, her son zigzagged around pool tables on a toy bike. “Many women my age want to decide what to do. We are not giving birth to babies or being housewives. We can be independent of our husbands,” she said, invoking Mao Zedong, “trying to hold up half the sky.”
Outside Lin’s office, Namata was inspecting her manicure when a Ugandan client walked in. Even though her primary job was to translate and manage the company’s accounts, Namata was expected to promote sales in English, Chinese, and Luganda. She jumped up and emptied a packet of chips into the client’s palms, flamboyantly describing why they were unique. Other chips are just made of potato, she said, simply sliced and fried. But these were special. They tasted good, though maybe a bit too sweet. They came in different shapes too, she said. Clifford Zhou, a boyish personal assistant to Lin’s business partner, drifted out of the office, hands folded behind his back, to keep an eye on what was going on. As Namata turned her back to him, he muttered: “Ugandan. All labor, no mind.”
In Mukwano Mall, afternoons went by slowly. The din of the traffic outside became fainter in the courtyard. Inside a gaming parlor, where posters of Chinese gladiatrix occupied the chipping walls, off-duty construction workers crouched over a hulking console named China Dragon, a blinking, talking, and singing table that produced 19 fictional fish, including a prized sea monster.
The parlor’s owner, Xu Jianjun, brushed up his English in a triangle of sunlight, sitting at a wooden desk etched with ball-pen art: a fire-breathing dragon, an ancient emperor in regalia. Xu, who worked as a door-to-door insurance agent in his hometown, had already been through two businesses in Uganda: selling women’s clothes and handbags. He didn’t speak Luganda (virtually no Chinese migrant did), and in a dog-eared dictionary he brought from home, he took note of useful everyday phrases. “This dumb ass nigga,” one page read, just below a memo on “Free the Nipple.” On another page, he scribbled notes to himself: “I want to live, not just to exist,” “Nobody loves you when you’re down and out.”
Upstairs, Ivan Sselubilu, a Ugandan hairdresser, worked out a way to persuade more Chinese to visit his salon: He considered hiring a Chinese pedicurist and masseuse. Recently, he installed CCTV cameras so that if something went missing in the salon, as had previously happened during a Chinese client’s visit, he would have proof to show that he did not steal. “The Chinese are far better than us. In terms of thinking, in terms of ideology, in terms of political, in everything, they are very far, far better,” he said. “If you ask a Chinese how do you compare Kampala with Beijing or Guangzhou, they say this is a village. And yet for us who are born in Uganda, this is our capital city.”
Sselubilu had been convinced by the philosophy of the Confucius Institute, a soft-power arm of the Chinese government tasked with spreading awareness about the country’s ancient civilization and language. It opened its doors at Makerere University, one of Uganda’s oldest institutions of higher education, 18 months earlier. Classes to learn Mandarin were filled to capacity almost immediately. Uganda had a lot to learn from China, the institute’s Ugandan director, Oswald Ndoleriire, explained. “These people have come with good work ethics and good work habits. They have come to show us how to work hard, how to not spend the whole day sleeping or drinking,” he said. “Africans should not be worried. These people have not come with guns. They have not forced down their Bibles and Qurans down our throats.”
The Chinese had built miles of roads cutting across the thick forests of Congo, some areas so dense that they were entirely untouched. “The Belgians who were there for so many years just taught the Congolese how to sing and dance,” he said. The Belgians had, in fact, inflicted atrocities in the Congo Free State, killing millions. “By the time they gave independence in 1960s, I think there were maybe three graduates.”
But for Beijing, winning the hearts and minds of Africans was not always quite so easy. Last year, 180 migrants had to seek refuge in the Chinese embassy in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, as rioters razed their stores, and in South Africa, the xenophobic attacks on shopkeepers got so violent that the foreign ministry lodged a formal complaint. Uganda, so far, had mostly been free of such friction.
The Chinese insisted that only a developing country could help another developing country. “Kampala somehow is a little bit like the time of 1980s in China,” said Apo Lin.
One evening this January, as Nash Malik Kago, a Ugandan chef at Mukwano Mall’s Chinese barbecue restaurant, peeled carrots in the shade, the dinner rush came earlier than usual. Red tablecloths were still wrung out, and no one was around to seat the crowd. The head waitress, the only Chinese woman on staff and someone who seemed to get her way with the restaurant owner, was slumped over a table, asleep. Kago tapped her shoulder to let her know that guests were waiting and went back to the kitchen. Suddenly, she emerged behind him, punching, pummeling, slapping, allegedly first with her hands and then with the handle of a mop.
A crowd gathered around them, but nobody intervened. When Kago returned to work, after a hospital visit to confirm that nothing had been broken, he was handed a letter. There had never been a fight, it declared, only a misunderstanding. The waitress had been giving Kago a kung fu lesson.
But something had shifted in Mukwano Mall after the incident, especially for the underclass. People like Namata and James built their careers on helping the Chinese, and yet instead of Kago, it could have been them. The very thing that propelled them-their behind-the-scenes contributions to Chinese success in Uganda-started to feel suffocating. “Many Ugandans feel that I’m lucky, but sometimes I feel like I am not,” explained James. “Like during the incident, my boss was on the side of Chinese, and yet the Ugandans who were here, they said, ‘No, this is our country, you can’t just slap someone like that.’ Still, I didn’t know where to fall, you understand?”
By early February, as Chinese New Year drew closer, Mukwano Mall’s courtyard looked like an outpost of the Chinese embassy, decorated with paper lanterns and good-luck garlands. In construction camps outside the city, vast stages were erected to host singers flown in from Beijing. At Nanjing Hotel, Lin floated across tables to supervise service as her guests savored dinner in small pavilions of pastel paper flowers. There were syrupy desserts, free-flowing baijiu, and Lin wore lipstick. Each guest would receive a coupon to be cashed in for a free cupping treatment or ear-cleansing ritual at the hotel’s spa.
Lin was at home. She thought of herself as a sort of loving matriarch, handing her employees hong baos, red cash envelopes traditionally given out as blessings. She wondered about taking her children to safari in the northern savannahs. The last time they went, her son became dizzy with laughter, spotting lions, elephants, giraffes, and hyenas. “I love Uganda. So long as it is secure here,” she said. “At least the climate here is good. The friends here-the people here are friendly.”
In the 13 years that she had lived in Kampala, she made annual trips to China, but rarely to her hometown of Changsha. In her lifetime, China’s economy exploded, but Lin’s hometown seemed to have been left behind. It was supposed to be home to the Sky City, the world’s tallest skyscraper, but the project was indefinitely stalled. In Uganda, leaders were working hard to make sure that everyone benefited, Lin said. “Now Uganda is home,” she said. “Not China.”
That evening of Lunar New Year, Namata sipped African tea in Mukwano Mall’s quiet courtyard, wondering how long she would need to be at Sunshine Foods to get enough work experience for a job in Colorado. Her salary had not yet been deposited, she did not feel challenged by the work she had to do (“Simply translate stupid things”), and she was growing resentful about working at the company. Most of her income disappeared into new clothes, shoes, and trinkets. “When you work with these guys, the Chinese, you don’t save a lot,” she said. “You spend more, and you don’t save anything.” She was on her way out to the United States, and this time she had a good feeling about it. She would escape the drudgery of Kampala and the small struggles that added up and wore her down. In the first week of March, she turned in her resignation. “If I fail to get a job in USA,” she said, “I have to go to China and become an English teacher again.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative by the International Women’s Media Foundation. This article appeared in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.