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Made in China, sold in Senegal

It took almost four hours for three movers, one carpenter, one building manager and me to get a bed into my new apartment this week.

After I had finally gotten all the keys to the apartment — “Oh, you needed the key to the street entrance too?” asked my wide-eyed rental agent, but that’s another story — I gave the place a quick once over before heading back to the furniture store to meet the movers who would deliver my bed.

An hour later, crammed into the hallway with the mattress, bed frame, headboard and three movers, I tried to unlock the door. It wouldn’t budge. The key turned. The lock didn’t.  

The three guys each had a go, “silly toubab” written all over their faces. Nothing. I woke up the building manager downstairs. She had been there when I had opened the door earlier. She gave it a go. Nothing.

“It’s a Chinese lock,” she said matter-of-factly, jingling the keys.

One of the movers set out to find a new lock and a carpenter to install it. As the carpenter worked, I asked him how he could tell the lock was Chinese.

“Well, it doesn’t work, does it?” he replied, laughing.

Chinese goods dominate Senegalese stores, and an unofficial Chinatown has cropped up downtown in recent years. But, it seems that here in Dakar, “chinois” is a synonym for cheap, or maybe another adjective that starts with a “c.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives in Senegal tomorrow as part of a whirlwind, four-country tour of the continent meant to strengthen Sino-African relations in the region.

I attended a pre-visit press conference hosted by the Chinese ambassador, Lu Shaye, in Dakar last Thursday. While here, President Jintao will meet with Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade to sign technological and economic cooperation agreements.

Many criticize Chinese interests in Africa as being purely economic, and the ambassador repeatedly tried to emphasize the various humanitarian, infrastructure and construction projects that China has undertaken in Senegal.

What caught my interest, though, were the questions by Senegalese journalists about the trade imbalance between the two countries, the inability of Senegalese producers to compete with the cheap Chinese imports, ranging from locks to electronic goods to cars, that are flooding Dakar's markets. It doesn't matter that the goods have a reputation for poor quality, they are much cheaper than anything else available. 

Senegal is not rich in the oil and other natural resources that drew China to Africa, so what exactly does China want from Senegal? one reporter asked the ambassador.

Here are a few statistics: 

Senegal's Ministry of Commerce said Chinese imports accounted for 94% of the total value of goods traded between Senegal and China in 2006, reported by IPS in mid-2007.

“Trade between China and Africa jumped in the past decade, driven by China's resource needs and growing African demand for cheap Chinese-made products. In 2008, total trade between the two sides was $106.8 billion, up 45.1 percent on 2007,” Reuters reported Tuesday.

The ambassador responded that the Chinese goods sold in Senegal are not poorly made and are of a quality that is proportionate to what Senegalese can afford. Chinese vendors in Dakar each employ one to four Senegalese in their shops, he added, thereby reducing the unemployment and petty street crime (presumably by unemployed youth) that plagues Dakar.

Um, OK.

This morning, my showerhead fell off the hose in mid-rinse. The round thingy-ma-bob that connects the showerhead to the hose had cracked in half. Not quite sure how I had broken it, I apologized to the woman I am staying with and offered to replace it.  

“Oh, no worries,” she said, crumbling part of the broken piece in her hand. “It looks like metal, but it’s made of plastic. See?”

She returned with another cast-off showerhead that had suffered the same fate.

“It happens often,” she explained. “They’re Chinese.”