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The Africa Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010

Following a visit to the Shanghai Expo 2010, Kenneth King shares his insights into how 'the continent with the largest number of developing countries' represented itself to 'the largest developing country'.

The Shangahi Expo 2010, taking place in Shanghai, China from 1 May to 31 October 2010 is a world exhibition, bring together over 190 countries and 50 international organisations as participants, including 49 African countries and the African Union. Kenneth King reports back on his visit.

The joint Africa Pavilion is one of the largest of those in the entire exposition[1]. It contains 42 separate pavilions related to individual African countries and an additional pavilion associated with the African Union. There are seven other African countries with their pavilions just opposite the great joint one. This is surely a unique and unprecedentedly inclusive opportunity to represent the continent to China and to the wider world over a period of seven months in 2010.

For the growing community of Pambazuka readers (academics, policy analysts, and students) interested in China–Africa relations, this is a rich and fascinating chance to see how ‘the continent with the largest number of developing countries’ represents itself to ‘the largest developing country’. Although the Expo organisers had identified an overall theme – ‘Better City, Better Life’ – what did African exhibitors do with this, and what did they add to the theme for their own purposes? How did African pavilions use the opportunity to present themselves to a massive audience that already by the end of July, the fourth month, had surpassed ten million visitors in this pavilion alone?

Here follow eight comments or propositions about Africa at the Expo. Most of these may not have been apparent to the great majority of pavilion visitors who are intent on getting stamps in their passports and taking photographs. They appear to do little reading of the captions. But for these visitors, the Africa Pavilion is a huge bonus; there are almost no queues, and there are many photo opportunities – from lions and giraffes to the duck-billed platypus or the dragon-like River God of the Zambezi.

First, there are two Africas at the Expo: The 42 African countries in the vast Africa Pavilion, along with the African Union; and then the seven, like Angola, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa who chose to stay outside with their own larger separate pavilions.

Second, the ‘outsiders’ covered most of their own very considerable costs, with their own designers, and could each easily have spent RMB10 million. The ‘insiders’ still had some costs of their own, but the majority accepted the very substantial generosity of the Chinese government, of around US$650,000 per country, and most then chose their lead designers from the list of Chinese service providers. Did this make the Africa Pavilion, with its dramatic, Chinese-designed, rock-face of African profiles at the entry, an aid project to Africa constructed in China?

Third, China clearly wanted this Expo to be as inclusive as possible; hence the 49 countries that were present even included Mauritania, which is not a member of the African Union, and The Gambia which still has diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Fourth, the Africa Pavilion is short on history (especially on links to China and Chinese communities in Africa) and long on culture and tourism. Notable exceptions for an audience which is 99 per cent Chinese are ‘the Chinese Girl’ in the Kenya pavilion with links back to Zheng He’s sailings to the East African coast; in the Zambia pavilion the stunning photos of Mao with Kaunda, and in the Ghana one the brilliant photo of Zhou Enlai playing table tennis with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (though there are no captions). Sadly the TAZARA Railway photo has no dates or links to China – even though some visitors tell of working on the line 40 years ago. Other exceptions are the rich urban history of Ethiopia, and the many parallels between the ancient civilisations of Egypt and China.

Fifth, is there a risk that with most of Africa being in one pavilion the myth that Africa is a single country – ‘What’s the capital of Africa?’ – is perpetuated? No! One of the positive messages of the frenzied ‘Stamping of Passports’ is that Africa is a continent of 50+ countries; and it’s a message that the African Union reinforces by insisting that visitors identify an African country on a huge map before they get a stamp!

Sixth, did the African Pavilion, with its acacia trees, giraffes and elephants on the outside, overplay the animals, cultures of exotic peoples and traditional artefacts, and underplay innovation, modernity and scientific research and development? Perhaps yes. But for many countries, it is the former that draw in tourists, and not least to the 26 African countries that are approved tourist destinations for the increasing numbers of Chinese visitors. There are some notable exceptions to this generalisation. And not least Egypt and South Africa which have extraordinarily rich tourist resources on display but demonstrate also the crucial role of creative design and the vital rise of a modern urban economy.

Seventh, a powerful message to many of the Chinese visiting the African pavilions is that Africans in China speak Chinese! In several of the pavilions there are African students from Shanghai’s universities speaking fluent Chinese. One of these, from Cameroon, plays host to audiences at the performances on the Central Stage of the African Pavilion. But many other pavilions have wisely taken advantage of these enthusiastic African ‘ambassadors’ studying in China.

Eighth, and perhaps most important of all, the African pavilions, whether insiders or outsiders, may not all exhibit the Shanghai theme of ‘Better City, Better Life’. But they do something more crucial. They demonstrate in no uncertain terms the art, colour, diversity, languages, friendliness, and sheer beauty of the continent. They speak of an Africa very different from the misrepresentations of Africa as generally poor, hopeless, and war-torn. They tell of a Good Africa, and of the promise of a Better Africa, Better Life.

It is entirely possible that many young Chinese visitors, with their passports more full of African than other stamps, will recall something of these visits, when they are older. Shanghai may well prove to have been the beginning of an awareness of Africa that will result in further study of Africa, in Afro-tourism, or in becoming a young volunteer serving Africa.


* Kenneth King is international advisor to the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University; visiting professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education; and formerly director of the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

[1] The wider research project of which this is a part was supported by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (Project No. HKU 750008H)