Romance Without Borders: As China grows its influence in Uganda, one cross-cultural couple raises a family
ENTEBBE, Uganda – Almost a quarter of a century into their marriage, Elly Amani Gamukama still smiles when he describes how he met his wife, Yuan Zhongshun.
It was the early ’90s at a university in Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei province. The young woman living a few floors above the foreign students’ dorm fascinated Gamukama. He remembers her as beautiful, friendly, and always surrounded by a group of friends. “I tried to approach her, but she brushed me off. So then I befriended the whole group,” Gamukama, who is now 56, told Sixth Tone.
Nowadays, the couple live in Uganda, in a bungalow adorned with Chinese paper door decorations just a few minutes from Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake. Giant marabou storks with wingspans up to 3 meters soar over the peaceful, quiet neighborhood, one of the wealthiest in the country. But both husband and wife had simpler beginnings: Yuan, now 46, grew up in Hubei, while Gamukama is from a small Ugandan village and came to Wuhan on a coveted scholarship.
More than 60,000 African students study in China today, but back in 1991, only a handful had been invited. Gamukama, one of the best computer science students in Uganda, was among the lucky few. He expected to earn a degree that would set him up for success; he didn’t anticipate finding the woman he wanted to marry along the way.
When the pair began dating, Yuan’s parents had strong reservations. Because China’s policies made it difficult for foreigners to settle in the country, the couple would have to move to Uganda. In the early ’90s, Uganda was a place of scarcity, with dirty streets, widespread poverty, and limited resources at universities. Wuhan wasn’t much different, Gamukama said, but Yuan’s parents assumed the countries would be worlds apart – they had heard of the genocide that was raging in Uganda’s southern neighbor, Rwanda, and thought of Africa as an entire continent of war and disease, Gamukama explained. “Nobody in the family had ever been,” said Gamukama, who is now a university professor of computer sciences. “And the only thing they would see through the media were the bad things.”
But Yuan had always possessed a strong will and adventurous spirit, and eventually convinced her parents to let her move to Uganda.
When Yuan arrived in the mid-’90s, she was one of the first Chinese to settle in Uganda. There was no Chinese trade to speak of – no major infrastructure investments by Chinese companies, no Chinese selling goods in local markets, not even a Chinese restaurant. By 2005, one Chinese-run hotel and a restaurant had opened. Since then, investments have skyrocketed – with a recent boost from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ” One Belt, One Road ” (OBOR) trade plan. As China has developed its trade relations abroad, Chinese companies have sought to gain a foothold in Africa.
Elly Amani Gamukama (left), Yuan Zhongshun, and their son pose for a photo in front of their house in Entebbe, Uganda, March 24, 2018. Hannah Reyes Morales for Sixth Tone
Now, China is the biggest trading partner across the African continent, as well as Uganda’s largest foreign direct investor. Over the past decade, Beijing has loaned over $3 billion to the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who’s been in power for 32 years. These loans have helped foot the bills of Chinese companies constructing the $580 million expressway between the airport and the capital, Kampala, as well as a $2.2 billion dam on the White Nile. They have also funded construction of the president’s office, equipped with Chinese furniture and unveiled by China’s deputy premier at the time.
With this investment has come an influx of Chinese. Although official figures from the Ugandan government put the number of Chinese living there at 4,473 in 2015, experts have said that the real figure, including undocumented immigrants, is at least twice as high, with some even estimating that up to 50,000 Chinese are living in Uganda.
Naturally, the boom in Chinese migration has also led to an increase in mixed marriages and partnerships. Although there are no statistics, officials from the Ugandan Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control complained to a parliamentary committee in 2016 that more and more Chinese are marrying Ugandans and taking jobs away from locals. While some are sham unions forged to gain better access to Ugandan citizenship, which makes it easier to do business, many are real. “We have many who are marrying and even [re]producing,” one official told the parliamentary committee in English, one of the country’s official languages. “Even our Ugandan women are good at accepting to reproduce with these men.”
Yuan said she has never tried to adhere to the expectations Ugandan society has for women. On a sunny afternoon, she visited her son’s primary school to see a play in French – the fourth language her son will study, after his father’s local language, English, and Chinese. Sitting amid a crowd of parents, Yuan, the only Chinese, watched as a girl kneeled before her stage husband, explaining that Ugandan wives kneel to show respect, such as when they serve their husbands food. “I had no interest in that,” she said. “Of course, other people here look at you strangely, and you feel out of place. But my husband doesn’t care. He knows to leave me alone with these things.”
The rise in interracial marriages isn’t confined to Uganda, of course. As the OBOR initiative expands and its investments and companies reach every part of the world, Chinese people are marrying more and more foreigners, raising a new question about China’s national identity: What makes someone Chinese?
Qiu Yu, who has researched the large African community in China’s southern manufacturing hub Guangzhou, told Sixth Tone that mixed couples and their offspring can add new dimensions to Chinese culture. But such families often face cultural challenges and struggle for recognition in Chinese society, Qiu said. This can even be a problem for children of these unions who were born in China and are recognized as Chinese citizens, like Yuan and Gamukama’s first daughter, Barbara Yihong, who is now 20 and studying at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “It is more a blending of various cultural elements that makes their identity, including their racial identity in China, unique,” Qiu said.
Ethan Yusan Shun Yuan yawns at home in Entebbe, Uganda, March 24, 2018. Hannah Reyes Morales for Sixth Tone
The couple’s second daughter, 13-year-old Ellen Yaxin, and their son, 6-year-old Ethan Yusan Shun, were born in Uganda at a time when China enforced the one-child policy. Had the couple stayed, they likely wouldn’t have had their two younger children.
Raising the kids in a mix of Chinese and Ugandan culture was never an issue, the couple said – in fact, they never even thought about it. They have just one main worry, said Gamukama: “What we hustle with is to let the children get a good education. The rest comes naturally.”
“If they come to us with something, then we explain it to them, and we can give them an understanding [of both their cultures],” Yuan said as Ethan Yusan peeked into the living room, dressed in a Spider-Man outfit. All three children were raised as Christians, attended mass in English with a Chinese-language Bible at home, and have English and Chinese given names. Ellen Yaxin is now at a private boarding school in Kampala – customary for rich and middle-class Ugandans. Ethan Yusan goes to a private school near their home and spends his weekends attending private English and Chinese classes, piano lessons, and church. In Uganda, the children don’t stand out – and if they are noticed, they’re often praised for having lighter skin.
Mixed-race Chinese who are half white often garner admiration and envy in China, as many Chinese believe Eurasian children are stronger and more beautiful, capable, and intelligent, said Solange Chatelard, a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany who focuses on state formation and China-Africa relations. But biracial Chinese are also criticized for not being “Chinese enough,” she added.
As the child of parents from France and China, Chatelard said that she has experienced both positive and negative reactions, depending on the place and situation. “There is a perceptible sense of hierarchy between different races one is mixed with,” she said. “Being half white is generally considered more positive or less problematic in China than being half black.”
Over the years, Yuan and Gamukama have had issues as well, but nothing that couldn’t be solved. Yuan, who wasn’t raised religious, converted to Christianity in 2009. “If we didn’t believe in God, this marriage would have been finished long ago,” she said.
Elly Amani Gamukama (left), Yuan Zhongshun, and their son pose for a photo in Entebbe, Uganda, March 24, 2018. Hannah Reyes Morales for Sixth Tone
Gamukama agrees that faith has been key to their marriage and said he’s also had to accept his wife’s strong will – the one that brought her to Uganda in the first place. “She is very dominant,” he said, describing their daily tug-of-war. “With my wife, every day we are pulling ropes,” he said. “And she always wins.”
But both agree that this is the nature of relationships – it’s hard work, no matter where you’re from. Overall, both believe cultural differences haven’t played a central role in their marriage. “When you are an interracial [couple], people say it’s because I am black and you are yellow,” Gamukama said, referring to relationship conflicts. “But marriage is always a complicated institution – if you are black, yellow, white, brown, it doesn’t matter.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative. Editor: Julia Hollingsworth. (Header image: Elly Amani Gamukama (right) spends time with his family at their home in Entebbe, Uganda, March 24, 2018. Hannah Reyes Morales for Sixth Tone)