Xie Huidong (left) and local agricultural technicans at a pineapple plantation in São Tomé and Príncipe on January 19, 2017 (COURTESY PHOTO)
Do something once, it's an accident; twice, a coincidence; but if you do it a third time, then it was meant to be. For Xie Huidong, his third visit to the small island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, off the Atlantic coast of Central Africa, was always meant to be.
"I'm really lucky to come back here where I worked previously for a long time. Just thinking of being able to see São Tomé's warm people, its beautiful landscapes and especially my former colleagues fills me with joy," said Xie, who speaks the native language of Portuguese.
Between 1993 and 2001, the 51-year-old agronomist was dispatched to the country twice by the Chinese Government and the United Nations to work as a translator as part of the agricultural and economic cooperation programs. Almost 15 years later, he once again set foot on São Tomé and Príncipe, this time as a member of the first Chinese agricultural mission to São Tomé and Príncipe, barely a month after the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries on December 26, 2016.
While taking on the role of a translator, Xie accumulated rich practical experience related to transferring agricultural technologies and practices to farmers. In fact, by the time he saw the mission's recruitment announcement, he had just completed a new agricultural census in Mianyang, his hometown in Sichuan Province in southwest China. His many talents make him a valuable member of the team, especially given that Portuguese-speaking agronomists are few and far between in China.
A language bridge
Between 1991 and 1993, Xie attended Portuguese language courses in China before being sent on missions to several Portuguese-speaking countries, such as São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola, Brazil and Cape Verde. Thanks to his assiduous study of the language abroad, he managed to obtain the certification in Portuguese as a foreign language issued by the University of Lisbon in Portugal. Despite this, the expert still faced a daunting challenge as soon as he set foot in São Tomé and Príncipe in early 2017, namely the challenge of translating technical agricultural vocabularies. As no Chinese-Portuguese dictionary specializing in the agricultural lexicon was available, he often had to use English as an intermediary language. In addition, the fact that some agricultural products imported from China did not have equivalents in the country, and no localized names in Portuguese either, added to his workload. He had no choice but to constantly refer to agricultural materials when communicating with local experts.
In addition to his skill in language, Xie managed to be a valuable asset, assisting local agricultural experts in their daily work, including giving agricultural demonstrations and conducting field surveys. During training sessions on vegetable farming, livestock rearing and anaerobic digestion, he was in charge of translating all training materials from Chinese to Portuguese and interpreting as needed. For a year, he acted as a kind of "linguistic bridge" for more than 300 local technicians and farmers who took the courses.
"Translators can be compared to the eyes, ears and mouths of experts. My job is to showcase their technical skills," Xie told ChinAfrica.
"Good communication has contributed to building mutual trust and friendship between Chinese experts and their counterparts in São Tomé and Príncipe," said Nilton Garrido, Director of the Research and Planning Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of São Tomé and Príncipe.
However, what sets Xie apart from his fellow translators and what makes him a particularly useful member within the mission is the fact that he wears two hats: on top of being a linguistic expert, Xie also holds a university degree in agronomy. In 1988, he worked in the Bureau of Agriculture of Mianyang City, responsible for disseminating agricultural techniques.
During his stay in São Tomé and Príncipe, Xie sought to leverage his know-how to expand the scope of his work, such as conducting field studies. Through his daily interactions with farmers and agricultural technicians, he kept himself abreast of the cocoa yields and coffee prices and became knowledgeable of the main pests and diseases destroying local crops. He also learned that over the last 20 years, the average annual rainfall on the island nation fell sharply, which significantly increased cocoa production costs, whose yields are much lower than before. He was careful to record these and other observations in his survey reports with the aim of giving a general overview of local agricultural and livestock development.
Xie did not hesitate to contribute his own technical advice inspired from his professional experience back in China. São Toméans are quite fond of peanuts which can cost as much as $4 per kg. However, peanut fields are easily overgrown with weeds, which reduce crop yield. This situation reminded Xie of a solution that had been successfully used in his hometown of Mianyang. The technique consists of covering cultivated soils with thin polyethylene films. In addition to reducing and preventing weeds, the technique also helps soil nourishment, retains soil moisture, reduces watering and promotes the development of microbes, which helps increase yields.
In mid-January, Xie's fellow team members all returned to China, having completed their mission in São Tomé and Príncipe. Xie, however, stayed in the country to take care of the work until February.
In April, less than two months after Xie returned to China, he went back to the African country again for a new two-year term. In his luggage were samples of a new breed of high yielding peanut plants to promote on his second mission in the country. For him, it seems the fourth time's the charm.
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