When China met East Africa at F&ES:  Learning a Global Perspective on Research

When China met East Africa at F&ES: Learning a Global Perspective on Research

During the Alumni TGIF (“Thank Goodness I’m a Forester” event at F&ES) last October, I shared with Gao, a Ph.D. candidate from China, my interest in learning about the environmental footprint of Chinese investments overseas. Despite my passion, I had little experience in the topic at the time and had no idea where to start looking for resources. Gao immediately introduced me to Dr. Helen Gichohi, the McCluskey Fellow at F&ES, at the Alumni Event. Helen is a renowned scholar from Kenya and wildlife conservation field practitioner – also former President of African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). I expressed my interest to Helen and made quick connections with her along with two other classmates, American and Ugandan students who shared a similar passion for the subject. As our interest overlapped with Helen’s research at Yale, we immediately started helping her research, conducting a literature review on Chinese investments in East Africa and their environmental impacts.

SGR in Nairobi National Park

Photo: Chinese-funded Standard Gauge Railway passes through Nairobi National Park

Throughout the process, I have substantially deepened my understanding of my country, China, and its increasing global impact, topics that are rarely discussed at home. China’s investments in East African transportation infrastructure have increased steadily in recent decades, a trend that will continue to grow as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) targets East African development projects that address regional economic needs.  In Kenya, for example, China has helped finance and construct Phase I of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), greatly simplifying national transport operations and travel costs. I felt extremely lucky to have the resources and opportunities at F&ES to develop my research interests in full capacity with the guidance of an experienced practitioner like Helen. Her research expertise and field experience have a profound influence on my academic and professional goals at F&ES and beyond.


Dinner with Helen

Photo: Research team with Dr. Helen Gichohi, the McCluskey Fellow

As Helen wrapped her time at F&ES in January, I, along with my research teammates, was brainstorming how we could continue digging into the subject with depth. For instance, we found out construction and operations of SGR had a huge environmental impact. The new railway cut through Tsavo National Park and Nairobi National Park, two conservation hubs with diverse flourishing wildlife including elephants, rhinos, and leopards. Fascinated with the subject, we decided to continue our research through a three-person independent study.

However, the specificity and inter-regional focus posed a great challenge for us to find a fit advisor on campus. Where can we find a faculty member with expertise in conservation and a regional understanding of Africa and China? Luckily, we were connected to Dr. Amy Vedder, who was a former McCluskey Fellow a decade ago, and Dr. Bill Weber at F&ES. With decades of conservation experience in East Africa, Amy and Bill continued to supervise our independent study on the ongoing SGR construction in Kenya after Helen’s departure in February. Meanwhile, we got connected with the Council for East Asian Studies (CEAS) and the Council for African Studies (CAS) at MacMillan Center on campus. We learned that the center has worked on strengthening its scholarship on interregional studies through collaborations between several councils, and our research subject fits perfectly with this initiative. Our conscious efforts to reach diverse stakeholders across Yale have helped us establish a relationship with the Office of International Affairs, Tsai CITY, and other organizations.

Antelope in Nairobi National Park_Aaron Feng

Photo: Wildlife in Nairobi National Park with SGR in the background

As we read more literature, we realized the limits of our then-designed independent study. In Chinese, there is a phrase called “creating cars without looking at the traffic.” We could hardly understand what happens on the ground without actual field work. We don’t want to act blindly by divorcing ourselves from reality. Therefore, we had to set our foot on East Africa and talked with various stakeholders that we had been conducting research day and night. We decided to utilize our spring break as a preliminary fieldwork trip for our research. Challenging as it was, we successfully raised enough funding for a two-week fieldwork trip to Kenya and Uganda. Helen helped us raise funding from a UK-based conservation NGO, Fauna & Flora International. F&ES Dean’s Office, the Council for East Asian Studies (CEAS), and the Council for African Studies (CAS) at MacMillan Center also recognized our research by supporting our fieldwork.


Photo: After our interview with Save the Elephants, a Nairobi-based conservation NGO

In March, I finally set my foot on the land I dreamt about, after months of reading journal articles and reports. Prior to our departure, we reached out to all of our connections, cold-emailed stakeholders, and set up interviews. However, there were so many things we could not have prepared in the US, the other end of the earth, before leaving. We had to be flexible and deal with spontaneity. This was the first cultural shock I experienced as a Chinese having received US education. The differences in cultural and professional norms reminded me that I had been so entrenched in the American modern lifestyle. In the US, my calendar was built with 15-minute blocks and 10 minutes traveling time – quite applicable at Yale and in a city like New Haven. But this did not work in Kenya or Uganda.

Research Team with SGR in Nairobi National Park

Photo: Research team in Nairobi National Park

Our first interview with government officials in Mombasa, Kenya came completely out of nowhere. We attempted to set up an interview at Kenyan Port Authority (KPA), a governmental entity in charge of all the export-import goods on the Indian Ocean port. Our connection working in the field told us to knock the door and worked our way in. However, three of us, a Chinese, an American, and a Ugandan, spent two hours at the security but could not figure out our way in because we had no connection within the department. Interestingly, security guards asked us to come the second day and we decided to reschedule our travel plan completely in order to give it another shot. We ended up getting in the second day after obtaining a point of contact from within and everything worked smoothly right after we got in.

Of course, we have learned from those circumstances to adjust our working style to East African pace and factored in various external factors. I could not remember how many times I had to take Boda (motorcycle taxi) or Tuk Tuk (a three-wheeled auto ricksaw taxi) rather than a regular car in order not to be stuck in traffic. This was our most direct experience of Africa’s current urban infrastructure, the subject we are passionate about. All of those experiences have enhanced my patience and reminded me of so many things I took for granted – stable electricity, ubiquitous Internet access, and three-lane highways.


Photo: We took Tuk Tuk, a common means of transportation in Mombasa, Kenya

We also learned to leverage the diversity of our teammates to accomplish the goals of the research. I have to go to meetings alone with Chinese State-Owned Enterprises as those companies have strict policies about releasing information to non-Chinese people. In Kampala, Uganda, I went to a few late-night dinner gatherings of Chinese employees to build informal relationships with my interviewees. I even attended the Sunday service of Kampala Chinese church, which made me feel part of the expat community in Uganda. My teammates, meanwhile, have to build a relationship with Africans and western expats on the ground to obtain their perspectives. As a team with diverse backgrounds in business, conservation, and government affairs, we have contributed to drawing a picture that reflects different angles of the landscape.

Last but not least, I have realized the huge cultural and conversational gaps between Chinese players and local Africans. During my trip, I realized there were few signs showed Chinese employees and expats have assimilated and integrated into African culture. Africans, on the other hand, have lots of stereotypes about Chinese. As a Chinese, I was most struck by the different human-wildlife relationship between Chinese and Africans. There were very few people able to bridge that gap and facilitate conversations and deeper collaborations.

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 13.48.58

Photo: After our presentation to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS)

Our research not only deepened our understanding of the subject but also pushed stakeholders to reflect on their past projects and improve in the future. For examples, after we presented our preliminary findings to a panel of 10 professionals in the Kenya Wildlife Service, one official expressed his gratitude towards our interview. The interview gave them an opportunity to sit down together to resemble their experience and actively think about how they could apply to future infrastructure projects. Thus, they issued us a free pass to the Nairobi National Park and invited us to see how the railway projects affect wildlife in the park.

Kampala Event w: Pericles Lewis & Eddie

Photo: Research team attending the Yale Africa Initiative Event with Pericles Lewis,Yale Vice President for Global Strategy, and Eddie Mandhry, Director of Africa

Kampala Event w: US Ambassador

Photo: With US Ambassador to Uganda

Throughout our research with Helen and fieldwork in East Africa, I have realized F&ES and Yale have offered us support and network that we could not have obtained from elsewhere. In Kampala, we attended Yale Africa Initiative reception (organized by Eddie Mandhry from the Office of the International Affairs) and met US Ambassador to Uganda and other Yale alumni working at the Embassy. We obtained an intriguing perspective on Chinese infrastructure from the American perspective on the ground. In Nairobi, our field trip happened at the same time as the UNEP conference and we had an F&ES student and alumni dinner. Throughout all the interviews, the most common questions we encountered was “How did you guys meet and get together on this subject?” We always attribute that to the MODS that bond us three together (a three-week summer orientation modules required for F&ES students), the October TGIF where we met Helen, and most importantly, F&ES and Yale’s resources that span across the globe.

F&ES Alum Student Event in Nairobi

Photo: F&ES student and alumni gathering during UNEP conference