Meet Beijing's new generation of African changemakers

We chat to the young leaders shaping Sino-African relations

Recent years have seen China strengthening ties with African nations on the government-to-government level through various groupings – BRICS, the Belt & Road initiative, and the upcoming Forum of China-Africa Cooperation in September, to name a few. But at the people-to-people level of exchange, the continent is still widely misunderstood and often stereotyped.

Recently, however, a group of young Africans in Beijing birthed an initiative that they hope will expand the conversation about Africans and African agency in China. They are Nimo Wanjau, Miatta Momoh, Mikka Kabugo and Zahra Baitie, the founder of social enterprise Kente & Silk and lead organiser for Beijing’s first-ever Africa Week, held back in May.

The idea came from Baitie, but grew when she shared her vision with Wanjau and Momoh; the ladies immediately offered to help, proffering their skills – for free, too – for a chance to help change the still pervasive stereotypes of the African continent in China, as shown in a string of recent public incidents.

With Kabugo soon on board too, the young team worked to create not just a day of celebration, but an entire week to showcase African culture, innovation and enterprise in China, culminating on May 26 – a day after Africa Day, when Africans across the world commemorate the 1963 foundation of the Organisation of African Unity, now known as the African Union.

The week featured a packed and varied programme of daily events including parties, dance classes, art workshops, dining events, open mics and storytelling, while a series of forums focused on African agency in China, and also the role of women in shaping the future.

The finale was the city’s first-ever African-focused start-up pitch competition, held at Tsinghua University’s Schwarzman College, which saw one lucky Beijing-based African entrepreneur win 30,000RMB for their business.

‘It feels so good to know that what was just an idea has not just come to life, but ended successfully,’ Baitie tells us. ‘We wanted to showcase the vibrancy of the African community here in China to show what Africans here are doing, the value that they are creating not just for other Africans but also for the Chinese community, and so we created opportunities for people to engage.’

We spoke with the Kente & Silk team and some of their partners about their motives for the Africa Week initiative, and their own experiences here in China.

By Claudine Housen
Miatta Momoh

Miatta Momoh

UK-born Sierra Leonean, MBA graduate from Peking University


'The objective was really appealing. I loved that it wasn’t just going to be an academic forum, that there were going to be different events encompassing all the versatility and the great things that African culture embodies. I thought it was something unique and timely, and I saw the drive and heart that Zahra had. That excited me and made me want to be a part of it.'                   

Zahra Baitie

Zahra Baitie

Ghanaian, Master’s graduate in Global Affairs from Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University


'I have had very good personal experiences in China, and good interactions where I felt welcomed and had a chance to share my culture with friends, and people who have become like family. But on the macro level, as is evidenced by the Spring Festival gala show and the exhibition in Wuhan [that paired portraits of Africans with animals], there is limited understanding and limited positive engagement.'                   

Nimo Wanjau

Nimo Wanjau

Kenyan, Communications Manager at The International Montessori School of Beijing


‘Zahra's vision and the aim of the initiative made me want to be involved. It was something new that would be very good to get off the ground for years to come. Also, a celebration of African culture is a chance to share my love for the place that’s home for me – Africa. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that change your life.'                   

Mikka Kabugo

Mikka Kabugo

Ugandan, Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Medicine and President of the Peking University African Students Association 

 
‘I think Kente & Silk's Africa Week was important because it embraced many of the aspects that we in the African Students Association are striving to achieve, for example, telling people about our culture, telling people about where we are from, and how rich it is. Beyond trade, economics and politics, there is also just sharing, expressing ourselves the way we do as Africans, and doing it in a way that was not as conventional as most gatherings are here in Beijing or in China.'                   

Lisa Alleyne

Lisa Alleyne

Canadian and second-generation Guyanese, Co-founder of Thrive Beijing


Along with her two partners, Boithabiso Mokoena from South Africa and Jamaican Nichole Alexis, Alleyne powered the launch party for Kente & Silk's Africa Week on May 18, and helped promote the week’s happenings. 'The experience was awesome. We loved the spirit that they had, and the drive,' she says. Indeed, the aims of Africa Week as a whole certainly match up well with those of her own platform, which has been active since 2017 and has sought to highlight the achievements of young foreign residents in the city, particularly Africans and those of African descent. 'The whole point of Thrive is supporting young professionals and entrepreneurs who are here in Beijing, who are taking a step forward to create something or to better themselves.'

Yoofi Greene

Yoofi Greene

Ghanaian, Guangzhou-based Afrobeats dancer and choreographer


Felix Yoofi Greene, stage name Yoofi Greene, travelled from Guangzhou to be a panellist for Africa Week's China Africa Stories on May 19, and to perform at and lead an Afrobeats dance class a day later. (He also returned just in time for our shoot and, fresh off the plane, absolutely owned the set – a natural performer.) The dancer and choreographer tells us how he sees his craft as a way to share his culture with non-Africans. ‘I think dance is a very entertaining way to spread African culture because most people don't want to learn through sitting in a class and getting some geography lesson. I use dance to teach African culture and let people know how rich it is.' And quite the success he had with that Africa Week class: it was a sold-out event that set the tone for the equally packed-out string of activities that followed. 

Yaa Anima Opare Appiah

Yaa Anima Opare Appiah

Ghanaian, Founder of Nani’s Creations


Yaa Anima Opare Appiah, better known as Nani, is a woman in high demand, by both black and non-black Beijing residents alike. Appiah started her African accessories business, Nani’s Creations, as a side job, just to make some extra cash while reading for her Master's in Material Science & Engineering here in Beijing. But instead, she found a calling – sharing her culture through craft. ‘I realised that it was not just about me and making money anymore. I was representing Africa and what it stood for,’ she tells us. 'It was about making people experience Africa in a different way than they are used to.’ As part of an Africa Week workshop, Art Afrik, Appiah partnered with the Kente & Silk team to teach attendees how to tie African headwraps and make bracelets. The week would end in even better style, as she entered and eventually won the start-up pitch competition, receiving a fantastic 30,000RMB to develop her business. Her advice to young entrepreneurs? ‘Stop listening to people who have not achieved anything. You can't ask a coward how to fight or a naked person about clothes.’  

You might also like

Comments