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Cultivating new views

Updated: 2014-08-01 09:19
By Deng Yajun ( China Daily Africa)

Cultivating new views

Samantha Sibanda, from Zimbabwe, has started educational and networking efforts, as well as supporting Africans who live in China. Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily

Cultivating new views

The founder of the appreciate Africa network is a tireless advocate of teaching Chinese about the continent and improving people-to-people ties

Samantha Sibanda is a wonderful example of what she likes to call "new Africa".

A former dancer and singer from Zimbabwe, she was a radio presenter before appearing in the 2011 Chinese film, China 1911 - which tells the story of the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), and led to the establishment of the Republic of China.

She plays eight musical instruments, and also plays golf, but her most notable achievement, she says, has been the formation of the Beijing-based Appreciate Africa Network, launched in June 2013, which organizes a wide variety of events and programs.

At the center of its activities is the Discover Africa Academy, which goes into international schools to teach schoolchildren about the continent.

Two months ago, Sibanda, 36, also organized the first African Achievers Awards Asia Pacific, which gathered the best African talent from across the region for a night of celebration and recognition.

When she first started the academy project, Sibanda says she was taken aback by how little many children in China knew about the continent.

"In the first class I ran, I asked children out of curiosity what they knew about Africa. The answer was that every year during Christmas, their parents send old clothes to poor kids in Africa.

"That was the only thing the children knew about it, but now I like to think they know a lot more," she says, smiling.

The academy's long-term plan is to have its own school, and she is working toward taking her first group of Chinese children to Africa during the winter vacation. Construction has also started on what she is calling the African Information Resource Center in Beijing, which she hopes will become a center for all African cultural activities in Beijing.

"I essentially teach the children about the history of Africa, where each country is, how many regions there are. Some actually know what Africa is, but some think it is just one country.

There is also a program to teach Africans who were born in China, and know little about their own history or where their families are from.

"I like to make the classes fun. I show the children a map of Africa, and say, 'This country, they eat this, they dress like this'. The kids dress up, we also do crafts, face painting, learn how to make carpets, masks.

"We even show them how to make peanut butter from scratch."

The network also organizes Africa Night Asia, during which students from various countries take part in a speaking contest, which is co-run with the Young African Brand Ambassadors Association, a voluntary association of talented students working as their country's "brand ambassadors" in the Asia-Pacific.

Last year 35 students took part, and the winner, from Namibia, produced a video showing how people raised, caught, and cooked chickens, instead of just buying them in a shop. "It was very funny," she adds.

There also is Miss Plus International - a beauty contest for plus-sized Africans who come together to celebrate the "beauty of size, in a nonjudgmental environment, and to show that some of us do actually appreciate our curves", she says.

"The intention is to help build confidence in African women who are often physically very large.

Sibanda says the experience of being big can vastly reduce African women's self esteem; some are scared because they think, "I'm big, I'm ugly, I can't get married", she says.

"We have to tell people, 'Just feel good about the way you are, just make sure you are healthy, that's what's important'."

She describes one group she runs that she calls the Big Sistaz Club where females come and simply talk about being big.

A woman in it might say, "men don't love me, I'm ugly", or if they go to a shop, they feel embarrassed.

But as Sibanda says: "Although you are big, you have got something that goes on with your body. Just show people out there, you are big, but you can do something, you can look good."

Another more formal program she runs is called Africa's Got Talent, which helps Africans working in China and elsewhere to find employment or business contacts, through a growing skills database.

"There is an abundance of talented people from Africa and the world needs to know about them," she says.

"Africa's Got Talent is something I want companies to use to find the best in African talent, from China and around the region."

Sibanda thinks that Africans and Chinese have much in common.

"We are the same in many ways. Chinese people love handmade things, Africans do too, and they are so talented in arts, for instance, so just give them a chance to show their talents."

With all this work, does Sibanda have time for a family life?

"Although they are far away, my kids make me happy," she says. "My son is 15, my daughter is 8. I talk to them every day on Skype or WeChat. My daughter doesn't understand what I'm doing, but my son does, and he supports me."

She says after only 18 months of existence, the nonprofit Appreciate Africa Network is growing too fast for her to handle alone.

"It can be stressful, but I am on a mission to educate and explain. This is really what motivates me. I want to inform, and to get past the stereotypes that people sometimes have of Africa.

"When I started this, I wanted to change what people are saying about Africa. I'm not sure about everything about it myself, but the more people learn about it, the stronger the relationship between here and Africa will become."

She says she "believes in China and its future with Africa".

This strong belief is at the center of all she does, she says, and helps her focus on her goal.

"China is a good country - if it wasn't, I wouldn't have been here for this long. I know the relationship between China and Africa will continue to grow closer and will do all I can to make that happen."

For China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 08/01/2014 page10)