West African Traders as Translators Between Chinese and African Urban Modernities

Dr. Karsten Giese
Dr. Laurence Marfaing
2013 - 2019
German Research Foundation (DFG)

Project partners within the Priority Programme 1448: “Adaption and Creativity in Africa”

Dr. Akosua Darkwah, Institute of Sociology, University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana

Dr. Cheikh Tidiane Dieye, ENDA CACID, Dakar, Senegal

Prof. Dr. Heike Holbig and Dr. Ute Röschenthaler, AFRASO, University of Frankfurt, Germany

Prof. Dr. Gordon Mathews, Department of Anthropology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

Dr. Ebrima Sall, CODESRIA, Dakar, Senegal

Dr. Xiao Yuhua, Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua, China

Chinese in Africa, Africans in China Research Network (CAAC)

ANREsca, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France



Research Questions

The project investigates, with the case studies of Senegalese and Ghanaian transnational entrepreneurs in China, the kind of transnational practices that shape the encounters with and the experiences of urban Chinese modernity for various groups of West African traders. It addresses the marks of the personal experience of China left on African traders through their economic sojourns to the Chinese supply centres of global capitalism (material objects and/or abstract concepts alike) and analyses the ways in which the African traders’ experiences and interpretations of China are formed by various social actors and influenced by social formations (networks) and belief systems (religion) relevant to them.

The project seeks to understand how the traders individually select, interpret, translate, and redefine "things Chinese" (ranging from material objects to abstract concepts, lifestyles, ideologies) within the context of their home societies by enacting their social capital as members of a virtual community and in what way the discursive processes of translation and creative appropriation might impact negotiating social change and re-ordering( institutions, practices, social formations, policies) in urban West Africa in an era of accelerated and increasingly accessible economic globalisation.

Contribution to International Research

The combination of the different regional research capacities at the GIGA within one research team allows us to address this multidimensional research problem with the adequate regional and multidisciplinary competences and research strategies. In the field we closely cooperate with a number of individual partners from academic institutions in China, Ghana, Senegal, and Europe who have been engaged in research closely related to our proposed study.

Research Design and Methods

In order to study the socio-economic practices of the West African transnational traders with regard to their specific experiences of urban Chinese modernity and to reconstruct the original Chinese significations of the translation products within the framework of multiple modernities that can be identified in Ghana and Senegal, intensive fieldwork is conducted in Guangzhou and Yiwu as the most important destination cities for West African traders. Our multi-sited ethnography approach follows both people and ideas, when we rejoin our research subjects in Ghana and Senegal after their sojourn to China, and retrace their business contacts in China respectively. We make use of a specific mix of qualitative methods based on a participatory approach including narrative and open interviewing. Biographical information are included to a large extent. We evaluate the observed processes and significations of translational products against the backdrop of a range of pre-structuring factors that lie within the social, economic and political orders and local power relations insofar as they can be regarded relevant. To that end, we conduct additional desk research as well as semi-structured interviews with selected informants in key positions of society, as well as with state authorities and representatives from associations, lobby groups, and other relevant institutions.


Our results show that African entrepreneurs in China see China as a model regarding their entrepreneurial strategies. Especially long-term African entrepreneurs in China have a self-understanding as translators of China. However, this translation potential faces a number of obstacles as transnational African traders’ various predispositions impact their readiness to perceive, accept, and understand Chinese translation objects and recipients in the traders’ home society potentially contest integration of the travelling concept into the community. Our research during the final project phase, however, shows that quite a few phenomena of local socio-economic change can be associated with or attributed to experiences of local actors with and in China as well as with influences of local Chinese presence. The project will be concluded with an edited volume on this topic.