- - Tuesday, December 12, 2017

KIRYANDONGO, Uganda — Almost every major infrastructure project in East African countries these days is being built by a Chinese firm.

But the Chinese boom in the region has produced an unexpected byproduct: Destitute Ugandan women say they have been abandoned with babies fathered by the tens of thousands of Chinese workers building up the country.

“I trusted him with all my heart,” said Esther Musisi, 26, of Kiryandongo in northern Uganda, who has a 1-year-old daughter from a relationship with a Chinese expatriate.

The man, she said, worked briefly on the nearby $1.7 billion hydropower dam in Karuma being built by Sinohydro Corp. of China.

“I can’t believe what he did to me. He promised me that he was going to China for a month and would come back so that we can take care of our baby together,” she said. “I was six months pregnant when he left the country.”

Across Africa, China has emerged as the major foreign player financing and building badly needed infrastructure projects, from a railway in Nigeria and a highway in Ethiopia to a major new dam in Angola. New contracts signed in 2014 hit $75 billion, and President Xi Jinping has called for even more projects in what he once called a “win-win” deal for Beijing and African nations.

For the past decade, Chinese companies have been working on major infrastructure projects in Uganda, including the Karuma hydropower project, the Mandela National Stadium and a highway connecting Entebbe in the south to Kampala, the capital. The Uganda Investment Authority estimated that China accounts for half or more of all foreign investment coming into the country.

As a result, up to 50,000 Chinese men have come to the country to work on these projects, according to local Chinese expatriates.

At the same time, there is also a rising local demand for cheap goods from China. Contractors, traders, investors and entrepreneurs from the Asian giant have flocked the country looking for opportunities, opening factories and retail shops selling imported Chinese goods.

These foreigners are a lure for many Ugandan women, who date and sometimes marry these expatriates. Many Ugandan women said they prefer foreigner partners to local men, whom they accuse of being unromantic and not caring or loving.

“Chinese men know how to love a woman, and you can’t compare them with Ugandan men — they give women what they need,” said Joyce Tusabe from Kampala, who is dating a Chinese expatriate. “Also, [the Chinese] have a lot of money. He opened me an electronic shop, and I’m doing very well.”

Ugandan immigration officials say they are dealing with a related problem: Chinese workers looking to stay permanently in the country are engaging in sham marriages with Ugandan women to gain residency rights.

But the main reason for the unwanted surge in single, abandoned mothers is money, say local officials — climbing out of poverty.

“Poverty is the problem,” said James Okumu, a tribal chief who is the government administrator of the Kiryandongo district, which encompasses the dam project. “The Chinese are taking advantage of the situation to spoil our girls because they know our girls need money to take care of their poor families.”

Mr. Okumu said he knows of more than 50 children fathered by Chinese employees working at the Karuma hydropower project alone.

“Chinese men do not come with their women to African countries while working on major infrastructure projects,” he said. “So they are forced to seek local women to fulfill their sexual desires. They buy sex from these women.”

Now, some of these women want the situation rectified: They want to compel the Chinese fathers to pay the expenses of the children.

“I want [the father] to be brought back to the country so that he can take care of his child,” said Ms. Musisi. “Taking care of this child is very expensive. The baby wants sweet food like juice and biscuits, which is very expensive here. They are rejecting local food.

“They gave us false promises,” she added, referring to the Chinese expatriates. “They lied to us [and said] that they will take us to China. They gave us a lot of money, and we believed them.”

Mr. Okumu said he is working with the country’s Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development to deal with the issue so that it does not happen in the future. In the meantime, he added, the government is figuring out how to help mothers forced to raise their children alone.

“Many cases of women that were fathered by Chinese have been reported at our offices, and we are investigating the incidents,” he said. “We are investigating the company so that it can be held responsible and petitioned to support raise these children.”

The Sinohydro Corp. had no comment on the matter.

In spite of love, Ms. Tusabe warned Ugandan women to be cautious with Chinese men.

“I have advised many women not to fall into their trap, get pregnant and bear children,” she said. “It’s very risky because they are foreigners and they can leave any time. I advise them to get money from them and start a business.”

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