In a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Malawi, a teenager finds himself torn between African roots and a Chinese upbringing.
Enock Alu, a teenager growing up in a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Malawi, is torn between his African identity and Chinese upbringing.
Once a star performer with dreams of becoming a martial arts hero like Jet Li, Enock has to make some tough decisions about his future. Will he return to his relatives or study abroad in Taiwan?
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Set against China’s expanding influence on the continent, Buddha in Africa provides a unique insight into the forces of cultural soft power on the identity and imagination of a Malawian boy and his school friends growing up between two cultures.
By Nicole Schafer
I first came across the story of the Chinese Buddhist orphanage while living in Malawi, producing features for an international news network, and felt it would be a fascinating lens through which to view the implications of China’s involvement in Africa.
At this time, Malawi and other parts of Africa were experiencing a rapid influx of Chinese investment and Chinese nationals – following the formalising of Malawi’s diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic.
Western critics were describing it as China’s “colonisation” of the African continent or “China’s scramble for Africa”. For many African leaders, however, the feeling was that Chinese trade and investment offered a welcome alternative to a dependency on aid from the West.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is dependent on donor aid for most of its annual national budget. Former colonial powers have left countries like Malawi reeling with debt. Its new Asian partner offers trade, not aid. But will it treat Africa all that differently to how the West has?
While most debate about “China in Africa” at the time was focused on the so-called “colonisation” of her economies and natural resources, this story showed a unique aspect of China’s cultural influence on the continent.
I was struck by how this orphanage was strangely reminiscent of the Christian missions during the colonial era – only here, African children had Chinese names, and instead of learning about the West, they were learning about Chinese culture and history. I felt the orphanage would be the perfect metaphor to explore the growing relationship between China and Africa, but also as a mirror of Western colonialism.
As a white South African, my ancestry represents the legacy of colonialism on the continent. From this perspective, I was drawn to how this story could help me reflect on my own historical context.
Upbringing and identity
The story is told from the perspective of Enock and his school friends. When I was first introduced to Enock, I was captivated by the story of this young Malawian boy who dreamed of becoming a kung fu film star like Jet Li. For so long, Africa has been influenced by Western culture, but this story showed how the influence of Chinese culture was shaping the minds and imaginations of a group of African children.
I was drawn to the ways this story could enable me to look at the growing China-Africa relationship through the personal dynamics of Malawian children being raised within Chinese culture in the family-like setting of the orphanage.
As one of the first generations of African children to be raised within Chinese culture, I was curious to know how this upbringing had impacted their identity, especially the younger children who came from their home villages at the age of five with little time to know their Malawian culture.
I discovered that while Enock, at the age of 12, had already travelled extensively around the world, he had little recollection of his personal background. He did not know much about who his parents were or how his mother died, and he had never seen a photograph of his parents before. So the early stages of my filmmaking with him involved initiating this process of reflection into his past.
As filming progressed, I was interested to see how Enock and his friends began to question their Chinese upbringing and formulate their own ideas and identities. Especially Enock, who challenges the monk in surprising ways. Some of the reasons Enock gives for not wanting to go to Taiwan to study resonate with some of the questions being asked within the greater development debate. While there is the expectation from the monk that the students go overseas to gain skills and experience and then bring them back to develop the country, Enock questions how they will be able to develop Malawi if they come back as “outsiders”.
In many ways, I feel Enock’s internal conflict of trying to hold onto his own culture while reconciling with the sacrifices that come with embracing the opportunities afforded by the Chinese, reflect the dilemma around the future of the African continent.
If our identities and bonds with our communities are fractured, can we aid true development? Or are we simply perpetuating the cycles of the past on a continent that has a long history of foreign conquest and domination?