Feng Yu had some words etched deep in her mind. “If you have a chance to live in Africa, the way you see the world will change completely.” This is what an experienced Chinese expat told Feng Yu in 2007 when she was considering accepting a job offer in Africa. Now, she is working at an African embassy in Beijing.
Back then, having just completed her diploma in French, the young girl was ready for some adventure. She finally took on the job offer that brought her to the Republic of Congo to work as an interpreter. Only 22 years old at the time, she could hardly imagine the hardships she would face there. But with the support of her African friends in China, she stood firm and found out that an extraordinary experience was awaiting her there.
Do as the Romans
Despite having made all necessary preparations, Feng spent her first night on the continent in tears. The change was too sudden, and her family, her friends and her country were now out of reach. But as days went by, a golden opportunity opened to her. Her company needed someone to go to a faraway village deep in the forest. None of her colleagues wanted to go, but Feng, as a junior employee, seized the day.
The tribe, cut off from the world, still maintains its traditional ways. No stranger had yet set foot in their village. The first contact between the young Chinese interpreter and the tribesmen was tense. She moved in with the village chief’s family in a modest hut, with no windows and, of course, no electricity. That night when the kerosene lamp went out, Feng found herself in total darkness. “I was so scared, but I had nowhere to run away,” she recalled.
The next day, she saw how singing and dancing play a major role in the lives of local villagers. Little by little, Feng was caught up in this lively atmosphere and soon forgot her initial worries. Spontaneously, she joined in the dance with the children. “I didn’t understand the song’s lyrics, but the melody made me happy,” she said.
Back then, Feng realized a fundamental thing: happiness is not a matter of worldly possessions. In this small village deep in the forest, there was no such thing as a smartphone or a television set, but people there were happy. This scene and others remained deeply engraved in the memory of the young woman: “I’d like to go back one day. The weather was nice every day, life was simple and I taught children how to write. This is my definition of happiness.”
After a few months, she took on a new job offer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo before moving to Algeria, always to work as an interpreter. She stayed on the African continent for three and a half years in total, before finally returning to China.
Back home, she found a position in an African embassy in Beijing, working as a liaison with her favorite continent. For the next four years, from 2010 to 2014, Feng traveled twice to Mauritania and twice to Madagascar. She was once again charmed by the continent. In 2015, Feng got an offer to work as an interpreter and assistant in a construction company based in Gabon. The young woman accepted without a moment’s hesitation: the African continent was now her second home, and she spent most of her time with her African friends.
Serenity is an acquired state of mind
About one year after her arrival in Gabon, the country was preparing to elect its new president. The situation quickly became tense. In her company, everyone was on the look-out and safety was a top priority. Feng, like the others, was worried and remained glued to the radio, awaiting the latest political developments in the country.
Many of her Gabonese colleagues chose to cloister themselves at home, all while keeping her secretly informed of where and when troubles were most likely to break out. Others, on the contrary, did not dare to return home and chose to remain in the company’s compound, hoping to be protected.
“Suddenly, there a feeling of solidarity between us. We did not distinguish between Chinese or Gabonese, we just needed to help each other and that’s what we did,” she said. “No matter the skin color, we are all human beings.”
Her many adventures on the continent taught her just how true this is. One time, in Kinshasa, she was almost thrown out of a speeding taxi when the door suddenly fell down as the car was turning. But such mishaps never kept her from traveling around the continent, nor did the language barrier. “Language is not a problem. When you really want to communicate, we can understand each other,” she said. In Madagascar, where few people speak French, Feng managed to make herself understood through gestures, and even by making drawings in the sand.
When asked what country she would say is her favorite, she answers Mauritania without hesitation. “It’s a little paradoxical because there is nothing to do there. When I was there, there was no entertainment, no Wi-Fi or no bar. It was complete silence. For a time, I thought I was going crazy.”
But back in the bustling urban of Beijing, she now longs for this quiet monotony, interrupted only by fishing and long discussions with friends at night. “Conditions there allowed me to find a kind of simplicity that we have almost forgotten. It’s a complete return to basics.” She also speaks highly of Mauritanians who showed her “infinite kindness.”
One time when her car was stuck in the middle of the Sahara Desert, Tuaregs, dressed in their long white jellabas, stopped to help her. It was already late at night. Yet, the men went away as quietly as they came, without a single sound. Such scenes left a deep impression on Feng: camels walking quietly in the sand; Tuaregs who come and go, their white jellabas floating in the wind.
“In my heart, Africa and Africans are natural and simple. Despite hardships, they never lose hope. All of these calm me down and allow me to take a step back from things. One can find beauty everywhere in life: that is what Africa taught me,” concluded Feng.