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Guangzhou Dreams - Ibrahim Gai, Mayor of Little Africa
Businessman Ibrahim Gai, came to Guangzhou in 2007 from another busy international trade center, Dakar, Senegal's capital and the African mainland's westernmost city.

Updated:1332319255Source:GZ Morning Post

Editor's note: Ibrahim Gai cherishes a big dream as a young boy -- to import the dynamic energy and flourishing trading environment of Guangzhou to his hometown of Dakar, capital of Senegal. "I want to help my people blossom similarly,"he told Guangzhou Morning Post.

Businessman Ibrahim Gai, came to Guangzhou in 2007 from another busy international trade center, Dakar, Senegal's capital and the African mainland's westernmost city. Based on the Atlantic coast, the port city has long been a center of international trade, from its earlier, darker days as a European slave-trade hub to its current position as a bustling port for its fish, peanuts, phosphates and cotton exports, as well as its diverse imports from Guangzhou and around the world.

Growing up in Dakar made Ibrahim very aware of the larger world; some thirty years ago, when he was just eight, his father asked him, "What do you want to do with your life"and he replied, "I want to do something very big, something big for my country."With countless trades between the two ports, Guangzhou was the name that represented all that was growth and excitement oriented.

Big dreams demand big efforts and big changes and, in comparing the two cities that he calls home, the differences are considerable; in sheer numbers alone, Guangzhou's population of some 14 million is seven times that of his native city. Later, as a young man, he knew that he wanted to come and be a part of our city's dynamic trade bustle and realize his dreams in the supply chains that link the two cities and countries. His boyhood dreams, crystalized into a profound wish to be able to import to Dakar -- above all else -- the dynamic energy and hope that Guangzhou's flourishing trading environment represents to him. "I want to help my people blossom similarly,"he explains. He has not yet made his fortune in Guangzhou, but he is, in his own words, building a business on trust and mutual respect in the two cities.

One of the constants that have given him a sense of belonging in Guangzhou, is his Muslim faith; 94% of Senegalese are Muslim, and the Xiaobei neighborhood where he lives -- often referred affectionately as "Little Africa"-- is the city's largest center of African residents and, possibly, statistics are hard to come by, its largest Muslim community, estimates run upwards of 100,000 Muslims in the city; his halal diet alone brings him into daily contact with fellow Muslims from the Middle East and other African nations, as well as the city's Chinese Muslim populations. The largely-Xinjiang, halal restaurants -- often described as "Muslim restaurants"by Guangzhou natives, redolent with the seductive aromas of lamb broth and cumin -- are to be found throughout Guangzhou.

On our Xiaobei photo shoot for this article, he greeted the neighborhood's predominantly-Xingjiang, outdoor bakers and other shopkeepers affectionately with a broad smile, a handshake and the traditional Muslim greeting, "Assalamu Alaikum"("Peace be with you”) and in return received the traditional response, "Alaikum Assalamu"("And with you, peace”) along with warm welcomes to us to include them and their stalls in our photos. Though not a Muslim, I found myself instinctively putting my right hand to my heart, in the traditional recognition of the fellowship that was extended to us.

When he first came to Guangzhou in 2007, although he spoke his native Wolof, two other languages of Senegal and French, Ibrahim realized that English and Chinese were essential languages for an international trader here; today he is now also fluent in both. "Things were much cheaper in those days,"he recalls, "food and housing in particular, but speaking was more difficult."

One of the big changes that he has seen is the increase in Senegalese productivity; where he had exported jeans and pants to Senegal in the past. Today he is exporting Chinese fabrics to his hometown for apparel manufacturers. "Prices are rising in China, so we can compete,"he notes, "we are not yet in a position to export clothing to China, but we do export, cotton, gold and diamonds now -- and our wonderful peanuts."In return, he still exports jeans, along with tools, windows and ceramics from China.

Curiously, he doesn't really enjoy being a businessman; given his choice, he would rather be a high-end jewelry designer, a craft for which he studied and earned a diploma in Dakar. "In jewelry -- gold and silver -- there are so many artisanal secrets, but I have no time now to focus on that."Instead, he hopes to return to Dakar to open a jewelry store with his original designs, and perhaps his first clothing factory so that he may continue to improve the lot of his family and community.

Though his father had four wives, times have changed considerably in Senegal and he is contemplating having just one wife. Growing up in a family of four mothers and four homes was, surprisingly, largely harmonious and loving, he recalls, though as the 13th child of his father's total 45 children it must have been sometimes difficult to keep up his siblings' birthdays! Just one wife, but she doesn't necessarily have to be African. "Times have changed now, time will tell,"he said with a smile.

The Guangzhou experience has not always been all smiles; as a black man, he has encountered racist responses, but by and large, he feels that his business dealings with Chinese manufacturers and merchants have been warm and affectionate. His love of Guangzhou's modern architecture, convenient infrastructure, beautiful parklands and delicious food are things that he feels more than make up for his sense of being an outsider.

"Doing business with Senegalese people can be 'complicated', but Chinese business people are very open -- they are also very interested in opening businesses in Senegal."Sourcing -- finding the Chinese factories to match oversees buyers' needs -- can often be a complex job, with the need to comminicate clearly and be sure of quality, quantity and price, yet he has found business in China to be easy for the most part and Chinese merchants to be mostly honest and people of their words.

He plans to return to Dakar in three years, to marry and start a family. "I love Africa, because I am African... and I feel more at home there."Yet he knows he will miss Xiaobei's Little Africa when he leaves; he's made so many trusted friends and is greeted on the street by so many with affection and respect that he may have earned the title, "Mayor of Little Africa!"What words does he have for the world at large? "Go to school, learn English, learn about the outside world; if you don't learn, your mind will remain closed."

Tips: There are a number of mosques worth visiting in Guangzhou.Here are some of the most well-known:

Huaisheng Mosque
Guangta Lu, Yuexiu District

Xianxian Mosque
Jiefang Bei Lu, Yuexiu District

Xiaodongying Mosque
Xiaodongying Street, Yuehua Lu, Yuexiu District

Hao Pan Mosque
Hao Pan Street, Tian Cheng Lu, Yuexiu District

(Written by Doc Martin, additional research by Chen Guoying)

The story above is contributed by our media partner GZ Morning Post.
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Editor:Lynus Tan
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