Lin Apo, the visionary behind Sunshine Foods, had groomed herself to play the part of an archetypal Chinese businesswoman. She almost always seemed determined to compose a facial expression so controlled that it conveyed nothing. She was polite but short-spoken. As Madame Apo, she was businesslike and hoped to be seen as someone who carried herself with grace, even in denim overalls.But 13 years ago, she was a young woman who had trouble hiding her anxieties. In 2003, the moment she touched down at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, she began having second thoughts about moving to Africa. The new international passenger terminal had opened the same year with dramatic fanfare to become one of Africa's largest. But instead of the quick transit advertised, airline staff whisked Lin away to spend a night in the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city, without explanation. She carried one suitcase: clothes, cosmetics, and a few packets of antibiotics and traditional Chinese medicine to manage tropical fevers and the flu. She was 23 and had never left China before.Everywhere she turned, she found Ethiopian security guards toting machine guns. That night, alone in a hotel bed 6,000 miles from home, the horror stories she heard of Africa—a place apparently so backward that even China paled in comparison—came back to haunt her. She wondered if some of them were true. Back home, even policemen were unarmed, and except for on TV, she had never seen firearms before. She tried not to think about why they might be necessary. Two days before, Lin had been in the warmth of a room full of family and friends, celebrating her graduation from Hunan University, the modern successor to one of China's oldest and most storied academies.
Mariam Namata grew up in her maternal grandmother's home in Kampala, a 20-minute motorcycle taxi ride away from Mukwano Mall. She shared the four-bedroom home with a platoon of cousins whose parents had emigrated overseas, promising to return to collect their children eventually. Namata's parents had left her for the United States when she was eight. Her father was studying to become an engineer and her mother a doctor. When they came back to visit seven years later, she was in middle school. She had two brothers and a sister who had been born in the US. She had not yet met them. Her parents talked about bringing her to Denver, where they then lived, but they decided that she was too young to be uprooted. They would wait until she reached ninth grade, but when that time arrived, they figured she should stay behind until she finished high school. In her senior year, Namata told her parents she was ready to move to be with them, but her father urged her to pick a university anywhere other than the United States. "He was like, 'If you come to the US, you're going to depend on us all the time,'" she said. "So they said, 'OK, choose any other country.'"Namata was a Museveni baby. Her entire life, one man, Yoweri Museveni, had been at the helm of Uganda's affairs. He reined in the political instability that afflicted her parents' generation, unlocked the country's natural resources, and invited foreign investment. His policies were thought to have bolstered Uganda's economic welfare and propelled more Ugandans to enter the middle class, though the parameters of what constituted a middle class in Uganda were questionable. The African Development Bank, for instance, counted anyone who spent the equivalent of $2 a day part of Africa's middle class. Each election cycle, Museveni promised to continue growth and development.
But his presidency had not done enough for people like Namata. Many of her friends had knitted together funds, from their family savings and high-interest loans, and started their own businesses—small shops selling secondhand clothes and shoes from Europe or electronics from China—but they sank as quickly as they started. A 2014 study by the International Labor Organization and the Uganda Bureau of Statistics found high rates of underemployment and irregular work and reported that 5 percent of Ugandan youth who were actively seeking work were jobless. Independent analyses, however, estimated the rate to be much higher—closer to 60 percent, according to the nonprofit Action Aid.Namata was part of a small, privileged segment of Ugandan society. Even though she did not identify as upper middle class, she was aware of her privilege. Her parents, now expatriates, sent money home, and unlike many of her friends who had no option but to stay in Kampala, she could choose a university abroad. It was 2011, and she was 19. If she decided to pursue law, as she wanted, she could go to Canada or the United Kingdom, but visas to these countries came with notoriously long waits, sometimes up to nine months. Another option was India, but the idea did not excite Namata. Eventually, an uncle told her that China was set to become an economic powerhouse. Already, they had invested in Africa, developing infrastructure and exploring oil. This country was full of possibilities.
As China continues to pivot to Africa, the mall is at the threshold of becoming an antipode of Hong Kong's Chungking Mansions, the hyper-globalized shopping complex through which up to a fifth of Africa's cellphones have reportedly passed.
Amid the fears many Chinese immigrants harbored about living in Uganda, Mukwano Mall had become known as an oasis of safety. In late 2013, droves of Chinese rushed in from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, when the country tumbled into a civil war. As Uganda held presidential elections in February, shops in Mukwano shuttered in case violence broke out, though the country had been largely peaceful for three decades. "Being businessmen here, the only concern is the stability," Lin said. "If things are not steady, I think people will not risk their lives to do things here."The immigrants employed by Chinese-government projects lived in cookie-cutter rooms inside makeshift townships close to their work sites, guarded by three-tier security. But Mukwano was the backwaters of migration, where Chinese entrepreneurs who came with little backing ended up. Mukwano Mall's management employed its own army of security personnel. The mall had everything from supermarkets to salons within its walls. If you lived and worked here, you didn't have reason to step out.Sunshine Foods was a way to give Ugandans something to be proud about, Lin explained, sitting at her desk inside the mall. One wall of the office was used to display a poster of Golola Moses, a celebrity Ugandan kickboxer, grinning and bare chested, holding up three bags of Sunshine Crisps. "Yummy," the poster declared. "My most favorite snack is Sunshine Foods."
Only a developing country could help another developing country, Yu insisted. Western aid money could disappear into someone's pocket, but who could pocket a highway? "After thirty years, China changed everything," he said. "In Uganda, if we open the door big, you also change a lot. You have to open the door." Already, after China had been let in, Uganda had changed, he said. When he first arrived in the early 1990s, his Mercedes rumbled in the potholes. "Bom bom," he laughed, pretending to be in a bouncing car. "But now you don't see, most roads are good."Lin had reaped the benefits of entering Uganda early. With her husband, she opened a second business, the Nanjing Hotel. Dining tables were set up on the roof beneath gazebos, and they changed the carpets daily to announce the day of the week. Her children, a seven-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, would get to see the world without air-pollution masks. Perhaps the greatest privilege of living abroad was the fact that Lin was able to give birth to a second child while the One-Child policy was still in effect for those inside China. Outside the office, her son zigzagged around pool tables on a toy bike. "Many women my age want to decide what to do. We are not giving birth to babies or being housewives. We can be independent of our husbands," she said, invoking Mao Zedong, "trying to hold up half the sky."
When Mariam Namata returned to Kampala, there were many new signs of the Chinese presence. Men wearing helmets marked cccc, a Chinese state-owned construction company, huddled over enlarged maps and contracting plans. Supermarkets had separate aisles for Chinese products, and Kampala's nightlife district now had karaoke bars.
In Mukwano Mall, afternoons went by slowly. The din of the traffic outside became fainter in the courtyard. Inside a gaming parlor, where posters of Chinese gladiatrix occupied the chipping walls, off-duty construction workers crouched over a hulking console named China Dragon, a blinking, talking, and singing table that produced 19 fictional fish, including a prized sea monster.The parlor's owner, Xu Jianjun, brushed up his English in a triangle of sunlight, sitting at a wooden desk etched with ball-pen art: a fire-breathing dragon, an ancient emperor in regalia. Xu, who worked as a door-to-door insurance agent in his hometown, had already been through two businesses in Uganda: selling women's clothes and handbags. He didn't speak Luganda (virtually no Chinese migrant did), and in a dog-eared dictionary he brought from home, he took note of useful everyday phrases. "This dumb ass nigga," one page read, just below a memo on "Free the Nipple." On another page, he scribbled notes to himself: "I want to live, not just to exist," "Nobody loves you when you're down and out."
One evening this January, as Nash Malik Kago, a Ugandan chef at Mukwano Mall's Chinese barbecue restaurant, peeled carrots in the shade, the dinner rush came earlier than usual. Red tablecloths were still wrung out, and no one was around to seat the crowd. The head waitress, the only Chinese woman on staff and someone who seemed to get her way with the restaurant owner, was slumped over a table, asleep. Kago tapped her shoulder to let her know that guests were waiting and went back to the kitchen. Suddenly, she emerged behind him, punching, pummeling, slapping, allegedly first with her hands and then with the handle of a mop.A crowd gathered around them, but nobody intervened. When Kago returned to work, after a hospital visit to confirm that nothing had been broken, he was handed a letter. There had never been a fight, it declared, only a misunderstanding. The waitress had been giving Kago a kung fu lesson.But something had shifted in Mukwano Mall after the incident, especially for the underclass. People like Namata and James built their careers on helping the Chinese, and yet instead of Kago, it could have been them. The very thing that propelled them—their behind-the-scenes contributions to Chinese success in Uganda—started to feel suffocating. "Many Ugandans feel that I'm lucky, but sometimes I feel like I am not," explained James. "Like during the incident, my boss was on the side of Chinese, and yet the Ugandans who were here, they said, 'No, this is our country, you can't just slap someone like that.' Still, I didn't know where to fall, you understand?"
The Chinese insisted that only a developing country could help another developing country. "Kampala somehow is a little bit like the time of 1980s in China," said Apo Lin.
By early February, as Chinese New Year drew closer, Mukwano Mall's courtyard looked like an outpost of the Chinese embassy, decorated with paper lanterns and good-luck garlands. In construction camps outside the city, vast stages were erected to host singers flown in from Beijing. At Nanjing Hotel, Lin floated across tables to supervise service as her guests savored dinner in small pavilions of pastel paper flowers. There were syrupy desserts, free-flowing baijiu, and Lin wore lipstick. Each guest would receive a coupon to be cashed in for a free cupping treatment or ear-cleansing ritual at the hotel's spa.Lin was at home. She thought of herself as a sort of loving matriarch, handing her employees hong baos, red cash envelopes traditionally given out as blessings. She wondered about taking her children to safari in the northern savannahs. The last time they went, her son became dizzy with laughter, spotting lions, elephants, giraffes, and hyenas. "I love Uganda. So long as it is secure here," she said. "At least the climate here is good. The friends here—the people here are friendly."In the 13 years that she had lived in Kampala, she made annual trips to China, but rarely to her hometown of Changsha. In her lifetime, China's economy exploded, but Lin's hometown seemed to have been left behind. It was supposed to be home to the Sky City, the world's tallest skyscraper, but the project was indefinitely stalled. In Uganda, leaders were working hard to make sure that everyone benefited, Lin said. "Now Uganda is home," she said. "Not China."That evening of Lunar New Year, Namata sipped African tea in Mukwano Mall's quiet courtyard, wondering how long she would need to be at Sunshine Foods to get enough work experience for a job in Colorado. Her salary had not yet been deposited, she did not feel challenged by the work she had to do ("Simply translate stupid things"), and she was growing resentful about working at the company. Most of her income disappeared into new clothes, shoes, and trinkets. "When you work with these guys, the Chinese, you don't save a lot," she said. "You spend more, and you don't save anything." She was on her way out to the United States, and this time she had a good feeling about it. She would escape the drudgery of Kampala and the small struggles that added up and wore her down. In the first week of March, she turned in her resignation. "If I fail to get a job in USA," she said, "I have to go to China and become an English teacher again."Reporting for this story was supported by the African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative by the International Women's Media Foundation.This article appeared in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.