Review of Buddha in Africa (2019)

Moving picture, 90 minutes

Seen in 2020.

Senior students at the Buddhist Amitofo Care Centre (ACC) in Malawi, with particular focus on Enock, a local boy who’s been around the world as the star performer of the Centre’s fundraising acrobatic troupe. Abandoned by his father, orphaned by the death of his mother and submitted to the Centre’s care at the age of six by his subsistence-farming grandmother, Enock has received the “Chinese name” Alu. Approaching graduation and alienated by his education in this prong of Chinese expansion, he’s torn between college and his grandmother’s family and culture.

It’s pretty much the perfect illustration of the most significant developments in 2019 geopolitics, through a handful of people: A microcosm of the Global South in rapid transformation. While even the ACC uses 1970s-style photos of starving children to show the state of Africa, forcing its own students to take the role of such children on stage to coax donors, the ACC would not have happened without the rise of South-East Africa as an emerging market and predicted future partner of China, itself emerging from poverty. The ACC is not primarily a PRC project, though it’s highly compatible with the PRC’s plans. Its leader is a Taiwanese monk, hence Enock’s college is also in Taiwan. Even so, the ACC’s enclave is such a complete package of Chinese culture that it feels very much like one of the phyles in The Diamond Age (1995).

The school’s kung fu coach, who started the job at age 19, shows pictures of his home town looking no hotter than Lilongwe. When the coach misbehaves in a surprising action sequence, he’s sent back home, a skillfully characterized human pawn in developments vastly beyond the personal scale. His students argue amongst themselves about these developments. They’re all tepid about Buddhism and the school’s vegetarian cuisine, but one of them notes the other major religions (Christianity and Islam) are similarly imperial exports to their country. He’s right; “Enock” is a Christian name (after Noah’s dad), quite like “Alu”, which the boy appears to write 阿魚 followed by a small 日, incongruous to me. Buddha in Africa makes no illusions about a pristine bedrock culture, nor about poverty.

References here: Reviews on this site, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019), Faith (2019).

moving picture non-fiction