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Focus on Africa: The 2009 Byrd Symposium

International affairs majors study Africa-China relations
By Sierra Stanczyk ('09) and Rachel Yang ('09)

International affairs major Sierra Stanczyk talks with classmates about global issues

International affairs major Sierra Stanczyk talks with classmates about global issues.

On March 23 and 24, the JMU Department of Political Science, Africana Studies, the College of Business and Madison Political Affairs Club sponsored the 2009 Byrd Symposium. This year, the title of the symposium was "Focus on Africa: Business at the Bottom, Scramble at the Top."

Numerous students attended the two-day event and showed incredible enthusiasm and interest in the future of the African continent. Intelligent and challenging questions were posed to the guest speakers, demonstrating that JMU students feel a deep sense of responsibility and concern for the people of Africa.

Margaret C. Lee delivered the keynote address, "Re-enter the Dragon: China-African Relations and the 21st Century Scramble for Africa." Lee is associate professor at the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Lee also spoke with student in the classroom, along with panelists Anita Spring (University of Florida), Trushna Patel (Aga Khan Foundation) and Irene Safi (George Mason University). Issues ranged from microcredit to China's growing presence in Africa.

Guest lecturers and attendees discussed the relationship between China and Africa vis-a-vis trade and investment at length during the Byrd Symposium and it quickly became apparent that there are both positive and negative implications tied to this relationship. Many hope that China will assist in building up a continent that has faced challenges since the dawn of Western colonialism. A recurrent theme in the presentations and discussions was the notion that Chinese investment in Africa will lead to South-South cooperation and increased security and stabilization of Africa's food supply. However, some participants posed critical questions regarding this investment and enterprise, such as how Chinese involvement will affect Africa's natural resources and environment. A common concern is that China will extract and control a large portion of Africa's natural resources for a one-sided profit.

With a large part of the symposium focusing on Sino-African relations, Irene Safi, who hails from the Congo, shared a particularly interesting anecdote regarding Western and Chinese involvement in Africa. Ms. Safi explained that the West metaphorically eats with a fork in Africa, meaning that while the West "gobbles up" resources, there are "scraps" that fall through the prongs that become available for Africans. Meanwhile, the anecdote goes, the Chinese eat with a spoon and so there is no spillage and nothing left once they are done. This analogy reveals a lot about on-the-ground African sentiment toward the Chinese. Are we witnessing a 21st-Century scramble for Africa? What will the continent look like once the commodity boom is over? Another interesting anecdote discussed during the symposium was the fact that Chinese vendors are selling kebabs in many stands throughout Africa, which many see as a clear indication that the Chinese are moving in and taking jobs away from the average African.

Time will tell if the positives will outweigh the negatives as the relationship between China and Africa progresses. As one can tell from the anecdotes, the general sentiment expressed by the panelists regarding China's presence in Africa leaned toward caution and the belief that the global community should pay close attention to any type of growing foreign influence on the continent.

About the Authors
Sierra Stanczyk ('09) of Marlton, N.J., earned a B.A. in international affairs with concentrations in Africa and the Middle East. She was an Honors Program graduate and member of the Madison Political Affairs Club, JMU Arabic Club, Sigma Iota Rho and Alpha Phi. During her senior year she served as a managing editor of the James Madison Undergraduate Research Journal. Rachel C. Yang ('09) of Ann Arbor, Mich., also earned a B.A. in international affairs and was listed on the President's List.