Somali academic and documentary filmmaker Hodan Osman Abdi is helping to shatter misconceived stereotypes by promoting cross-cultural understanding and appreciation between China and Africa.
Her uncle was a longtime resident of Yiwu, an export hub in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, and often shared stories about China’s culture and history with Abdi when she was a child. Driven by curiosity, she came to China 12 years ago after graduating from high school to continue her education in Zhejiang.
She studied business and education and earned a doctorate in media economics and management from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, the provincial capital. Since 2016, she has been a researcher at Zhejiang Normal University’s Institute of African Studies, teaching African film and television.
“About 10 years ago, when I first arrived, the Chinese generally associated Africa with disease, hunger and poverty,” said Abdi, who is fluent in Chinese and English. “One time, my taxi driver asked where I was from. I said Somalia, and he said ‘Oh, the land of the pirates’.”
To change sweeping misconceptions about African people, Abdi and her colleague, Zhang Yong, produced the first Chinese-Africa co-directed documentary film, Africans in Yiwu, last year.
The film was selected as the opening movie for the Lusaka International Film Festival in Zambia last year, and it has been aired worldwide by China Central Television and across Africa by StarTimes.
The six-part documentary features the intimate stories of 19 ordinary people from 15 African countries living in Yiwu, home to one of China’s largest African communities rising from the ever-growing trade ties between China and Africa.
There are more than 2,000 different languages in Africa, with 5,000 ethnic groups across more than 50 countries, each representing a distinctive culture.
“But we have accepted the fact that one image of one person can represent the entire country, or even the continent,” Abdi said.
She said the film’s casting was intended to overcome the homogenized view of African people and “represent the diversity of what it means to be African”.
At the same time, it also aims to show that the African people have much in common with Chinese, with the same drives and dreams of improving their lives.
This common aspiration was also reflected in the just-ended 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which had the theme “Toward an Even Stronger Community with a Shared Future through Win-Win Cooperation”.
Since the forum’s inception in 2000, China-Africa relations have developed rapidly, Abdi said, with the nature of the relationship shifting from China giving aid to investing in Africa’s economy.
“Aid is good, but investment is better,” she said, as it can enhance a country’s infrastructure and financial institutions, leading to more jobs, improved living standards, and economic sustainability.
For example, a few years ago, it cost around $900 to ship a container from one of China’s ports to Djibouti, according to Abdi. Now, thanks to improved infrastructure, businesses can send goods much more cheaply all the way from China to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
“It will cut a lot of the cost that is felt by the ordinary people buying these commodities for their everyday lives,” she said.
At the same time, it will increase the prosperity of industrial zones and businesses, which will in turn create better jobs for young Africans, Abdi said.
Such visible and practical improvements to African people’s lives will create a positive cycle of tighter relations between China and African countries, she said, leading to more cooperation.