When Lamin Ceesay, an energetic 25-year-old from Gambia, arrived in Guangzhou last year, he thought his life had made a turn for the better. As the oldest of four siblings, he was responsible for caring for his family, especially after his father passed away. But jobs were few in his hometown of Tallinding Kunjang, outside of the Gambian capital of Banjul. After hearing about China’s rise, his uncle sold off his taxi business and the two of them bought a ticket and paid a local visa dealer to get them to China.
“It was very developed — the tall buildings, everything was colorful. I thought, OK my life is going to change. It’s going to be better. Life is good here,” Ceesay tells Quartz, describing his first impressions of Guangzhou, a hub for African migrants in China.
Gambia, a small country of just under 2 million people in West Africa, has been losing entire villages to migration, mostly to Europe but also to China. Chinese border restrictions have been easier than in Europe or North America, and the southern city of Guangzhou has become a hub for African migrants, traders and businesses. In Gambia, youth unemployment is high, almost 40 percent, encouraging people like Ceesay to look east.
“All I knew is that China was a world-class country and the economy is good,” he said.
In the past few years, tens of thousands of African and Arab traders have thronged to export hubs like Guangzhou and Yiwu to seek their fortunes, sourcing cheap China-made goods back home to massive markups in a growing, lucrative trade.
But Ceesay’s new life didn’t turn out quite how he imagined. The job that visa dealers promised would help him pay off his debts in three months didn’t seem to exist. Ceesay struggled to even feed himself. When he tried to move to Hong Kong where he heard work was better, he was escorted back to Guangzhou by police. He ended up in Thailand for three months, unsuccessfully looking for work, before eventually coming home.
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