Into Africa

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Into Africa

“Like the waterfall cascades piercing through the air / I want to live a life that does not gorge / The white snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro, the deep blue sky that cradles the snow / I want to be a lion that stands against the wind.”

The lyrics are from “Kaze ni tatsu Lion” (The Lion That Stands in the Wind) by Japanese singer Masashi Sada. I came across the song in the mid-1990s during my correspondent days in Tokyo. Sada sang the poetic lyric in a humming tone, reminding me of “The Leopard of Mt. Kilimanjaro” sung by his contemporary, the famous Korean singer Cho Yong-pil.

The song, which Sada later expanded into a novel with the same title, is based on a real story about a young doctor, Koichiro Shibata, who went to Kenya as a volunteer doctor. Three years later he received a letter from the lover he left behind in Japan. She apologetically informed him that she was getting married because she could wait no longer. The young doctor wrote back, “I thank you for not resenting me. I missed you terribly, but I could not leave the scenes, animals, and, most of all, the beautiful eyes of my patients in Kenya. I somehow feel Japan has gone down the wrong path. It would be a lie if I said life is not hard here. But I am happy … I wish you happiness from faraway. Congratulations on the wedding. Good-bye.”

The man who inspired the lyric graduated from Nagasaki University medical school and spent 26 months in a village hospital northeast of Nairobi beginning in 1971. After hearing the story from Shibata after his return home, Sada wrote and released the song in 1987. It touched many people and inspired Japanese high school students to apply to medical schools. Few Koreans were able to freely travel overseas in the early 1970s. I can recall thinking - because of a song - that Japan was an advanced country.

The song came to me again as I arrived in Nairobi after a 14-hour flight from Seoul earlier this month. Four decades have passed since the young Japanese doctor volunteered there. So much has changed. Korean residents in Kenya say, “About 10 years ago, Kenyans would greet Asians with the Japanese greeting konichiwa, but now they use the Chinese greeting ni hao.”

“‘Chinese fever’ is huge in Africa,” said Choi Moon-jeong, head of the Kenyan office of the Korea International Cooperation Agency, told me. “The recent visit to China was the first overseas visit by Kenya’s new president Uhuru Kenyatta.” Japan was Asia’s star in the 1970s and 1980s. Ezra Vogel, a Harvard University professor, wrote “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America” in 1979.

Japan has been replaced by China in Africa. China became Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, surpassing the United States. China’s trade with Africa reached $198.4 billion last year, while Korea’s $15.8 billion trade pales in comparison. Chinese President Xi Jinping in March announced near tariff-free status for trade goods from all African countries that maintain diplomatic ties with China. A cascade of Chinese products and culture is sweeping fiercely through Africa led by China’s Confucius Institute.

But Africans are beginning to raise voices of concern and resentment. The Chinese are gobbling up natural resources, dominating the markets and chewing away at the competitiveness of local industries. Africans are criticizing the Chinese for “predatory” trade practices because the Chinese bring their own workforce and equipment when constructing a building and are very protective of their technology. Kenyan artist Michael Soy’s satirical works about China are popular among Africans.

There are many Koreans who seek “a life that does not gorge” and to live as “a lion standing in the wind.” Many doctors from Korean hospitals are engaged in volunteer work in Kenya and other parts of Africa. Many pupils of Han Biya, the celebrated Korean travel writer and relief worker, are spread out across Africa. But government-level aid and support remains poor. The Foreign Ministry received a budget of 1 billion won ($894,694) this year for Africa and the Middle East. Just 400 million won is earmarked for Africa.

In throwing around money, we cannot match China and Japan. But we have the successful Saemaeul model for developing rural communities. We also have passionate young people willing to share their knowledge in the sizzling heat. Let’s encourage and support our enterprises and young volunteers in their work. In a May meeting with leaders of small and mid-sized businesses, President Park Geun-hye asked why there aren’t business success stories from Africa. Let’s not cram ourselves in this small country of ours, but spread out into the vast world. It is how we can reshape and expand our future.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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