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Dec 15, 2006

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh (Chinese) Christmas Tree


Hey BAG, can't you just enjoy a picture without having to get so caught up in politics?  C'mon, where's your holiday cheer?

Héctor Mediavilla -- one of those fine, up-and-coming Spanish photographers you've met in Barcelona -- captured these stunning images of Christmas in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo.  And sure, he thinks it's ironic the Christmas toys, trees and trinkets come courtesy of the good-hearted subsidization of the Chinese.  But he can also see the spirit, the wonder, and the shining faces, too.

But I already know what you would say.

You would bring up (or, at least suggest, in that subtle and clever way you always do it) that the Congolese are being taken advantage of because an energy-starved China is getting thirty per cent of its oil from Africa, mostly from Sudan, Angola, and, yes, Congo-Brazzaville.

I don't know, BAG.  You always find the dark cloud inside the silver lining.  Like Scrooge,  you would surely mention that Chinese investment in Africa largely underwrites war, weapons and civil rights abuses, particularly in countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe.

On top of that, I could see you asking why the Congolese can't manufacture these Christmas items themselves ... since they must be aware cheap Chinese imports have already wiped out whole industries, especially textiles, in places like Lesotho and South Africa.

And because I know you, you would also find some way to bash America's corporate class  ... and, somehow, even work Iraq into it.  Yeah, you would probably say something cute, like:  America's fat cats were so badly distracted by the war on terror that Mickey Mouse, Tweedy Bird, a thousand Barbie's clones and even Santa, himself -- the whitest man on the face of the earth, for crying out loud -- are now fully employed as Chinese trade emissaries.  (And, you would say that even if those fat cats were making plenty off the war economy, and you were largely a globalization critic.)

But look BAG, you can fight all the battles you want, but no one beats Christmas.  And even if you have a problem with that, I know one thing we would agree on.  That is: there's no better gift (especially at this time of year) than a great eye and excellent pictures.

Bon Nadal!

(For full view, click on the thumbnail)

2Mehcongochina07-500 Mehcongochina12-5003
4Meh05-30-2-500-1 Mehcongochina11-5005
6Mehcongochina20-500 Mehcongochina26-5007



To BAGreaders: Héctor will be available in the discussion thread to discuss his knowledge of Brazzaville, where he has done quite a bit of work; what it's like there at Christmas time; his experience taking these photos; or anything else you would like to ask.  As with all the photographers featured here, Héctor is particularly interested in your reactions and feedback.  By the way, you can view the full series here.

Images from the series: AFRICAN CHRISTMAS MADE IN CHINA. All photos © Héctor Mediavilla/  Used by permission.


Man, gotta love that santa in a skully!

Great fotos.

Curious how much setup went into the 2nd to last (might have numbered these!) foto with la morena towering over the blue-eyed barbie? Did you just snag it without interfering? Or did you stop her and crawl under it?

Well..., I especially like the portrait of the girl in the pink top and green dress who sits next to the fan.

What the series points to is something we've noticed in our remote suburban cities here in California: our markets are filled with what the container ship disgorged.

Essentially throughout history, the ships (or trucks) arrive with a collection of stuff in which a market must be created (it's the NEW hot item this year!).

...rather than "teaching a man to fish to feed him for a lifetime" there's more money to be made in selling him a fish (or plastic knock-off) each day.

Very, very nice. The young woman in the top photo looks like she has had a hard life.

I am reminded of Desmond Tutus quote about they came with bibles and we had the land, now we have the bible and they have the land. Indigenous cultural expression is the heart of a people. The loss or infiltration of that culture represents a level of psychic submission to other values. In these photos I see Congo's economic and spiritual life being exploited for profit by outsider's.

Granted, exploring new cultural systems and values is in inherent part of human existence and creates cultural fusion. Art thrives on the intersection of cultures and is often valued for its otherness.

...and who knows what syncretic myths and stories could eventually be attributed to the deeds of a magical sub-saharan St Nick
but, these pictures diffuse an element of the perverse that show a culture with values (and products) being imposed on it instead of the cultural evolutions of the people intersecting with an outside influence.

Though the braiding of the barbie could be just such a moment

thirdeyepushpin: "I am reminded of Desmond Tutus quote about they came with bibles and we had the land, now we have the bible and they have the land. ...."

My first thought was christian capitalism. Nowhere did I see the beautiful vibrant African cloth. It has been replaced by the cast-off westernized dress. The saddest image was #7, where the mother is selling all those imported christmas trinkets to get food for her children. The children are not the least interested in the toys because they are too tired and hungry.

Are we to blame the Chinese for this situation? I don't know. Perhaps they saw a vacuum created by western neglect and filled it with trinkets. Perhaps the corporatists have shown them the way and they just jumped on the bandwagon. Perhaps they have just found a population less well off than they are. Or perhaps they are just as venal and abusive as their predecessors, the colonialists and capitalists.

These pictures tug at the heart. But when I see #10, I think, what have we (western christian nations) done to these people.

I know nothing at all about Brazzaville, so I went to the Wikipedia link in the BAG's post. Apparently, this city has been under the thumb of some colonialist power for most of its history. Of course, the idea of "history" is even from the perspective of the colonizer, because according to the entry, its history began in 1880, when an Italian explorer landed there and "founded" the city - named after him - on the site of an existing village. Then they were part of the French empire, and the official language is French. "Until the 1960s, the city was divided into European (the center of the city) and African sections".

(One other sad fact I saw somewhere: the life expectancy is 47 for men, 50 for women.)

It seems like their culture has been infiltrated for a long time. I don't really see the Chinese imposing their own culture, though; Santa and Barbie aren't Chinese icons.

Ummabdulla, the Belgians pretty much ran the Congo for three quarters of a century (1885-1960), extracting mass amounts of natural resources, most highly valued of which was rubber at the time. King Leopold - who declared the 'Free Congo' his private property and ruled over all of it from 1885-1908 - is remembered as perhaps the most vicious of colonial masters: he had watchtowers installed at every colony/worker site and those men who didn't entirely slave themselves to the tasks forced on them had their hands chopped off at the end of the day. The figure killed is around 10 to 15 million under his rule alone. Mark Twain published a stinging satirical indictment of of the king in 1906, in which Leopold delivers a sololiquy that is simply extraordinary in its self-aggrandizement.

In regards to these photos, they are truly heartbreaking. I don't think the West "didn't notice" this was happening; I think its just that we have mined the Congo for so long, and, coupled with China's rising might, there is nothing we can really do about it. By nothing, I mean, we are no longer able to exploit the people of the Congo in the same way the Chinese are doing. (cynicism? what cynicism?)

Incidentally, the Congo has a long and brutal history of colonialism that is almost too unbearable to even comprehend. Even after the colonialists had supposedly left, things did not get any better. In the period from 1998 to just 2004 alone, over 4 million Congolese were slaughtered (or slaughtered each other).

Now, we can either console ourselves by saying the savages are just being savages again, or we can have some guts and admit some culpability in all this. For instance, after the Belgians declared Independance for the Congo in 1960, the Congolese elected their perhaps one and only guiding light, Patrice Lumumba. A mere *two weeks* after he was elected prime minister, he was kidnapped and then beaten, whipped and tortured to death by the orders of the one and only CIA. The US quickly replaced him with a leader more willing to bend to their wishes (remember, 25% of the world's diamonds come from the Congo), and ze people were once again crushed or broken or subdued enough to languish in suffering so that the genteel ladies shopping at Tiffany's would have more choice pickings for their annual Black & White Balls.

Lightkeeper, isn't that the other Congo - the "Belgian Congo" or "Democratic Republic of Congo" or "Zaire"? (Not that I even knew there was a difference until I went to look for information after reading this post.) Anyway, it's interesting to learn about an area I don't know much about... also embarassing that I don't.

Damn! All that history for nothing...

You're right Ummabdulla...I keep getting the two confused...My eagerness to condemn colonialism/'post'-colonialism can sometimes be blinding.

My apologies...

Also it doesn't help that the DRC of Congo has had its name changed so many times in the last 100 years...yes yes, excuses excuses and intellectual laziness. I will shut up now.

I have read some very interesting comments about this weird (for us westeners) Christmas in Congo (yes Congo Brazzaville! but it is a usual mistake to confuse both Congos... do not worry).

A few things from my side just to warm up:

To Nezua: no set up in the pictures. A white person like me stands out in such an environment so it is obvious that some of the people were aware of me. Actually, sometimes I like the confrontation of their look with mine. And thus, with yours. This can be the case of 3 or 7. In number 9, she was outside the Catholic church of St. Pierre Clavé, showing off her present like other children... so I just went there and take the picture. She saw me, in a way she agreeded to be photographed but it was me who knew what what I wanted to show... that is why I took it in such a way.

Some other interesting things to say:

This phenomenon is quite recent, just a 3 years of so. Before Chinese were not so popular in Congo (nor in the rest of Africa) AND Congolese children could not afford to have a Christmas present. Only those who were rich got a present.
However, today, no matter how poor you are (many families in Congo do not really know what they are going to eat tomorrow or the day after) your child could have his/her present. Prices start at 10 cents of euro for a plastic mask. So that special day, the 25th of december, which is considered the day of the children, every one has his/hes present. And children walk along streets very happy and proudly. It is much more democratic than before, isn't it?

But Congolese are not stupid, they know that these Chinese products are of bad quality, that they do not last long but they are WHAT THEY CAN AFFORD. And, it is very important for us to remmember that the virus of consumption and capitalism is already spread all over the world. They can watch international TV channels, internet is becoming popular, Congolese come back from France on hollidays showing their success... they also want to spend like us, westeners, and be as happy as we seem to be in the ads!

Ahh... so far, just a present is enough for a child to be happy. It can be cheaper o more exclusive (a small organ or a bicicle) but ONE is enough to make children happy. How long this will last?

The advent of mass produced gift-crap... oh, joy.

I just did some research of winter festivals for the (christian) second-hand store I work for - making our 'closed on dec 25' sign that acknowledges other culture's festivals... apparently, the Japanese celebrate the day as a young lover's festival (it's a big date night), the Mexicans do their own thing, a combination of their traditional festivals and the Roman Catholic traditions.

The photos are very good, strong; as a Midwesterner, Africa is very far away; to see those icons in such a different land is jarring, thought-provoking.

I like the focus on the children. But even 10p, magnified a thousandfold, mean someone's profiting, taking money out of the economy. I don't recall the source, but I read a history of Christmas that said it was Victorian-era retailers who were trying to pep up a slow time who pushed the Santa-and-gifts idea (although it is Baby Jesus who brings gifts somewhere in South/Central America). It seems a little sad.

Thanks for the excellent series--it is a part of the world that is often overlooked, at least in the US press. I was impressed at how the images captured the sense of place. While is hard for me to judge because I lived in Nigeria, years ago, so I have memories of a similiar place, these pictures seem to me to capture tropical Africa more than most.

One of the biggest challenges in viewing places and cultures that we have never seen is making them as rich as we experience in person--not just the sights, but the sounds, smells, the texture of the air, the temperature, the flavors and so on. And the danger is that we can impose our own reality on the scene, our own cultural values, our own definition of the problem and our own solutions.

I find that Americans-generous, kind-hearted, awash in stuff, liberal Americans-look at Africa through our own lens. We impose our own tragic history of racism, slavery, colonialism, and we are all committed to "never again." But as a consequence, we "see" the poverty and assume degradation. We are appalled by the trash, and assume exploitation. We assume much more colonial, racist oppression than is the present experience of the people there.

The pictures that caught my attention were #6, that of the children receiving gifts from the black Santa and #10, the little girls dressed up in their Sunday best. Hector must have been standing right next to the Santa, and I wonder what the occasion was. I have trouble reading the expression of the children--eager, greedy, happy? And the #10 picture was so evocative of Africa, to me--the textures of concrete, dust, grass, metal, the light that suggests rain, and the little girls with their straight backs and bridal satin gowns.

How very interesting that this is a new phenomena, these chinese trinkets. I read about an Indian economist (I can't remember his name) who was observing all sorts of micro-economic activity among the poor of India. He believed that kind of microeconomic activity was the source of economic growth. So in the Congo, when a million people spend a dime on a cheap trinket that they couldn't buy before, even after the Chinese skim off their cut, more dimes are turning over in the economy. That woman, in #7, who western eyes see as poor and weary. She is likely to be a junior wife in a polygamous marriage, She has to support her own children. Her life isn't easy, but her skirt is made from new African cloth, and she has a small inventory to sell. She'll make a profit and reinvest.

We in the west deplore the poverty of the 3rd world, but our solutions are usually aimed at large systemic effects, water treatment, financial aid even as we block sugar or cotton trade. The Chinese are selling cheap trinkets to individuals. They make a little and the people make a little. I am reluctant to dismiss this individual approach. The people I see in these pictures are happy people.

My understanding is that the U.S. has been rather miserly with its foreign assistance to Africans. So if China is providing more to meet their economic and personal needs, it is partly due to our neglect.

Perhaps in the long run it will help Americans to stop imagining ourselves as embodying the world's ideals when we appreciate that the Chinese and others may be more helpful to the Africans than we have been.

I suspect the icons (such as white santa) are ones introduced long ago by Europeans, not introduced by the Chinese, but only imported to meet existing traditions.

You mocking fools have no idea what it's like to be poor, really poor -- along with bleak and destitute and hopeless.

An abandoned baby gorilla clung to (what?) for the last weeks of her life.

A duckling with murdered patents desperately followed around a cat.

Congo aids victims and war survivors -- notice there are no men in the photo's -- cling to Chinese tinsel and recreations of western magazine advertisements to transport them out of their muck hope for a few days a year. And they are ridiculed by the rich and educated.

No wonder genocide is allowed to exist.

santa, you really can't say for sure who knows what here, eh? for example, you didn't know that i am actually mrs. claus using a new screen name, did you? DID ya?

now get home. you get so damn cranky when you haven't had your brandy.

I was just reading Migrants 'shape globalised world' on the BBC, and I was struck by this sentence:

"In the land-locked mountain kingdom of Lesotho, I encountered Chinese foremen in a textile factory talking conversationally to local workers in the local language."

I'm generalizing, of course, but one doesn't usually see Western factory managers bothering to learn the local language.

And as Dave Trapp suggested, China is sending much-needed aid to Africa, not just cheap trinkets.

PTateinMN: I quite agree with your approach to the thing. As I see it, after reading all comments I believe that WE are the ones who have problems with the way Congolese celebrate Christmas time with the Chinese help. Our prejudices or our sense of guilt (please, think it over Sta. Claus) are some of the reasons for that.
My conclusion is that at this stage of the thing (I have been in Congo 3 times and I quite know the place and the people) the import of such goods (that come originally from Western traditions) have a positive impact on the population. First, many local people sell these goods in markets and streets. They have an opportunity of having some little earnings... that can be important. People try to find their way because there is no industry and very few work opportunities.
Second, children are happy to have their presents. They are proud of them and they like to show them off. Why shouldn't they? Because they come from China? Because they are not suppossed to do that? Because it is only reserved for us white western people? Who says that??
As I see it, this is just a side of our beloved capitalism... and obviously depending on who is playing the game our way of looking at it changes.
Picture number 6: This Santa Claus had been hired by a local photographer in order to get more clients who wanted to be photographed with Santa. Children were very excited about him, they wanted to touch him, to say hello... I was shocked when some of them told me: "This is the false Santa Claus. This is not the real one...". So they knew he was not Santa Claus but they were happy of being there with him. Actually, it is their only chance... isn't it?

You pigs.
WE pigs.
we glut ourselves sick every Christmas, spend hundreds of euro on junk presents, plastic toys CDs books videos, stereos ipods xboxs games shit shit shit, me me me! and then think we are somehow justified in looking down our noses at the people of Congo for wanting the same.
Shame on us all.
They want what we want, the only difference is we already have it so we think its OK for Us, but not for them.

The thing I'm having the most difficulty wrapping my head around is the role time and novelty play in the Christmas pleasure of the Congolese.  Hector emphasizes this in two different comments:  In his first post, he writes:

Ahh... so far, just a present is enough for a child to be happy. It can be cheaper o[r] more exclusive (a small organ or a bicycle) but ONE is enough to make children happy. How long this will last?

In the second, he comments:

Children were very excited about [Santa], they wanted to touch him, to say hello... I was shocked when some of them told me: "This is the false Santa Claus. This is not the real one...".

I'm having a little trouble connecting with the commercialism debate because I think what is going on in these pictures is almost "pre-commercial" (if you'll accept the term).  What is completely unbelievable (given my thoroughly jaded consumerist Western mind), and what lends even greater interest here is the fact that, according to Hector, many of the people pictured are more imbued with the giving and the getting, than they are concerned with the gifts themselves.  Also (and I can barely write the words without doubting it's possible), apparently, these kids (including, but not exclusive to those in #6) actually believe in Santa Claus.  (Only in such a context would someone not preface the word "believe" with "still.")

So, the central issue for me is, can I actually make myself believe that?  And, as Hector points out, the operative question for the Congolese is, for how long can this innocence possibly last?  ...Which leads me to my question for Hector, which is:  Don't you wish you were in Brazzaville this week to follow the evolution of the story, and to "see" -- with the passage of another year -- about how long?

I was wondering about that... do the children actually believe in Santa Claus? Santa Claus is not part of the culture where I am (well, we're seeing more and more of the commercial Christmas, but that's another story). I've explained to my children how parents in the U.S., for example, tell their children the story about Santa Claus and they just can't grasp the idea that the parents would convince their children of this story which everyone knows to be a lie - and that the society is forced to play along. NORAD reports that they've picked up Santa and his reindeer on radar, and there's the occasional report of a teacher who gives honest answers to her students about Santa Claus and causes an uproar, etc. So is this story also told to children in Brazzaville? And if so, is it something recent or not?

I do not think Congolese children believe in Santa Claus, not at all. They point is, as I see it,that they are very happy to be part of this Western game, which is quite new for them. So Santa Claus is the most evident icon of Christmas time in Brazzaville. I have seen children buying their Christmas present with their parents in local markets. So those children are not "as naif" as ours, they soon learn what is real life about. However, like when we go to the theatre or to see a movie, they enjoy it.
BAG: I am not so sure that are just pleased with the giving and getting and not with the gift itself... I guess the most important thing here is the symbolic part of the product, what it represents for them in many levels.

I would like to come back to Brazza and see what is going on... for sure. But, you know, I also like to spend such time (even if I am not a fan of what Christmas time is now) with my family and friends. So, maybe, next year!

A friend gave me a small saguaro cactus ornament. When I went to place it on my wreath, I removed the small sticker from the bottom. It said: "Made in China."


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