It took a good five minutes for Li Changcheng and his wife to locate Mombasa in an atlas. Once they found it, the pair stared at the unprepossessing dot, trying to imagine the riches that lay on Africa's east coast. Six centuries earlier, Admiral Zheng He, with only the barest outline as a guide, did the same, only his imperial fleet was sailing to a mighty sultanate, at the peak of its power, not a faded port crumbling into the sea. Yet, despite the paint peeling from its once majestic, oceanfront villas, Mombasa and the surrounding strip of coastline still lure descendants of the seafaring eunuch with promises of unlimited possibility. It's in search of these latter-day adventurers that I, too, have arrived in Africa.
Chinese may go to New Jersey to wash dishes or New England to earn a degree, but they come to Africa to make fortunes and garner respect. Zheng He did as well. It was from Malindi, now a sleepy resort town a two-hour drive up the coast from Mombasa, that he received his most precious tributes: a qilin (or unicorn), a celestial stag and a celestial horse now identified more prosaically as a giraffe, an oryx and a zebra. Since moving sight unseen to Mombasa in 1992, Li and his family have also taken Africa's natural riches especially its abundance of rare animals and medicinal herbs and spun them into treasure. The Lis proudly give me a tour of their traditional Chinese medicine clinic, which is packed with patients. Their purified-water factory is rated one of the cleanest in Kenya. The Lis may have come for personal reasons, but national dreams are built on the shoulders of individual adventurers.
In recent decades, China has counted heavily on Africa in its push to gain allies and influence. While the end of the cold war relegated the continent to the West's back burner, China has courted Africa's 53 nations diligently. Trade volume between China and Africa is a record $10 billion and Beijing continues to increase aid with no pesky strings attached. The lavish attention has paid off. Beijing's successful bid last month for the 2008 Olympics turned in part on the votes of the African bloc. And since 1990, China has counted on support from African countries in eluding censure at the United Nations for its human rights record.
To Africans, the Chinese are benefactors who send doctors and engineers and build roads, stadiums and hospitals. As I barrel down the smoothest stretch of tarmac (which was built by a Chinese firm) connecting the Kenyan capital Nairobi to Mombasa, village children greet me, with my half-Asian features, by cheering: "China road, China road." In Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, where Zheng He's ships once landed, the city's biggest sports facility is called the Chinese stadium. "It is very simple," says Zhu Xiaochuan, China's economic and commercial counselor in Nairobi, as he sips imported jasmine tea. "Africa needs China economically, and we benefit from them politically."
Back in Mombasa, the Li family says its decision to move from Shanghai turned less on national ambition than economic desperation. State hospitals could no longer afford to pay the two traditional Chinese-medicine doctors a living wage. So they packed their suitcases, paid final respects at their ancestors' graves and headed to Mombasa, where they heard that just maybe a medical clinic was needed. Today, they administer acupuncture to squirming Kenyan patients, and dry homemade noodles on a clothesline in their dining room. "We have created a little China in Mombasa," says Li's wife, Ge Yuehua, as she pushes pickled cucumbers onto my dinner plate.
Still, Mombasa seems an unlikely place to settle. For me, its charms are antique: here the ruins of a once-mighty fort, there the shards of porcelain, reputedly from Zheng He's ships, that I find hidden in a dilapidated museum. As recently as the 1950s, seagoing freighters thronged to East Africa's largest port, off-loading boozy Western seamen and picking up African treasures. Today, as I stroll along the harbor, stevedores off-load shipments slowly a languor born of chronic underemployment. Still, the Chinese come. "We Chinese can find business opportunities everywhere," grins Cen Haokun, one of three affable brothers who own six restaurants and a shark's fin and sea cucumber exporting business in Mombasa. Farther down the coast, Mohamed Oloya lops dorsal fins off great whites, then sells them to a middleman who transfers the shark bits to the brothers Cen. The Malindi-born fisherman is unsure why the Chinese crave a useless chunk of cartilage. "The Chinese know how to make money," he shrugs, "even from something that no one else wants."
So it is that Yi Susen, an agent for Chinese shipping company COSCO, has doggedly set up shop. "The Americans and Europeans control the big markets," he says, "but we can build our fortunes in Africa." Recently, Yi traveled to the island of Madagascar for a delicate dEmarche: figuring out the right amount of cash needed to convince a recalcitrant port official to allow his ship to load goods. "Very tricky," he says, with a wink. "In Africa, there are no standard rules of business." A Chinese shipping empire is made on one remote isle at a time.
Madagascar, with its bright-eyed lemurs and forested hills, has tried hard to buoy its ailing economy by attracting Chinese investment. The nation's free-trade zones are dotted with apparel factories run by Chinese overlords and staffed with Chinese contract laborers. Last year, Madagascar doled out 600 visas to Chinese workers who construct everything from new roads to button-down shirts. Chinese factory owners prefer to ship in their own countrymen because, as one boss put it: "They work harder for less money." Miss Xu hails from Nanjing, the river port from which Zheng He launched his fleet. She signed up for a three-year stint in Madagascar without knowing a thing about the Indian Ocean island. After toiling in a sweater factory for the full three years, she doesn't know much more. The 22-year-old lived with dozens of other Chinese laborers in a cramped dormitory, dining on rice and stir-fried veggies. She never visited any of capital Antananarivo's sights. Nor was she paid what she had been promised, although her wages were higher than for factory work at home. Now on the marathon Antananarivo-Nairobi-Abu Dhabi-Hong Kong trip back to Nanjing, we stop at an airport duty-free shop and hunt for souvenirs. After 36 months away, she decides she will return from Africa with a giant Toblerone bar, a bag of Sugus fruit chews and a bottle of Lubriderm Daily UV Lotion. Xu's haul is hardly as exotic as the unicorn that Zheng He presented to the Emperor. But she must take gifts home for waiting relatives. That is Chinese tradition, just as for centuries its citizens have made the long, hopeful voyage to Africa.