SOUNDS OF DJEMBE drums and flute drift along a corridor in the rundown Huizhou Building in Guangzhou. In an office filled with mirrored handbags and glittering high-heel shoes, Senagalese trader Seringe Bamba Fall works at his desk. 'Africa is life, is love,' Fall says, his melodious voice filling the room. 'Africa is good for China, good for the Chinese people.' The tall, lanky Senegalese, who arrived in the Guangdong provincial capital three years ago, is part of a growing Afro-Arabian community in the Pearl River Delta region. Almost 10,000 African traders now call Guangzhou home, most concentrated in a bustling enclave between Yuexiu Park and Xiaobei Road. Here, tall dark-skinned men, women in colourful headscarves and white-robed Muslims with flowing beards make their way along lanes lined with shipping offices and shops displaying French and Arabic signs. Many head across a U-shaped pedestrian bridge to Tianxiu Building. The 30-storey, salmon-and-teal complex is the heart of African trade on the mainland. Tianxiu was just another office complex when a few Malian and Guinean traders first set up shop 15 years ago. But as the mainland, especially the Pearl River delta, established itself as the world's workshop, importers based in Dubai and Bangkok began moving to Guangzhou to deal directly with manufacturers. China's entry to the World Trade Organisation further fuelled the move. Festo Sengabo, a dignified 42-year-old in thick-rimmed glasses, plaid shirt and navy sweater, runs a brisk business sourcing building materials for reconstruction in his native Rwanda. He moved from Dubai two years ago to cut out middlemen, but says being closer to his suppliers hasn't made his life much easier. For one thing, Chinese businessmen have ventured into Rwanda. With links to factories on the mainland, many undersell him at every turn, Sengabo says. His suppliers are creative in their ability to cut costs, which means he must keep an ever-vigilant watch on the quality of the merchandise. 'You must check everything, and then check it again,' he says, intoning a mantra of the China trade. 'Only then do you pay.' Tianxiu's four-storey podium is a maze of logistics companies, travel agents and wholesalers' showrooms. The merchandise ranges from electricity generators and motorcycles to flat-screen TVs, mobile phones, designer clothes and hair extensions - every item made for Africa. About 80 per cent of the vendors are Chinese, the rest African. All have factories around the delta region and can make almost anything you want, as long as you provide a sample. Two ground-floor cafes serve as meeting points for traders who fan out to other centres in the delta region during the day. When markets close at 6pm, they return to call in prices, confirm orders and close deals. Operating on roughly African hours, Tianxiu may be Guangzhou's only office building open from 9am to 11pm. Rising above the mall are Tianxiu's three towers. The central block houses only offices, while the other two towers permit combined use. A two-bedroom flat may be converted into any combination of office, boutique, showroom, beauty salon, takeaway restaurant and bedroom. Most premises are linked to the Africa business. Trade between China and Africa has almost quadrupled to US$39.8 billion from US$10.6 billion during the past six years, and many predict that this is only the start of the boom. The number of visitors from the continent reflects this growth. Last year, more than 20,000 visas were issued to Nigeria, and 7,000 to Ghana, a 300 per cent increase on pre-2003 levels. Senagalese importer Jatta Lamin confirms the shift. 'There are so many African people coming here now to do business,' says the garment trader, who recently jettisoned his Bangkok and Dubai connections to join his brother in Guangzhou. 'Now is the moment, not only for Africa, but the world.' Coupled with the traders' dreams of getting rich from deals with the mainland, however, is an unspoken hope that China's rising star will pull Africa up with it. Such expectations are especially pertinent in the case of Sengabo, an ethnic Tutsi, whose entire family was killed in the Rwandan genocide. Just as he must start over as an individual, so must Rwanda as a nation. 'Now is a new Africa,' he says. 'Before, there was war everywhere [in Rwanda]. Now, we have young, active leaders. Everybody's watching to see what they do.' Although Sengabo appreciates the opportunities the mainland presents, other Africans traders' feelings are more complex. Abdul Nahas, a Nigerian, hopes his resource-rich country can learn from the mainland experience. 'If you can't manage your own resources, you should invite someone to help,' he says. 'We have everything we need - rainfall, agriculture, mining and oil - but we don't produce. China doesn't have one-quarter of what God's given us, yet they've attained a value we haven't.' At the same time, Nahas worries that Nigeria will become over- reliant on the mainland. 'We haven't been wise,' he says. 'We've been dependent.' On the personal level, Chinese-African relations can transcend differences in a way rarely achieved at international forums. While shopping for a new mobile phone, for example, Sengabo and a Chinese shop assistant bargain genially in the laidback patois of Francophone Africa. Sengabo says Chinese and African traders in Guangzhou seem to view each other with mutual respect rather than be bogged down by the ego battles that often mar relationships with westerners. One reason may be because they relate better as outsiders. Just as African arrivals find it hard to fit in, most mainlanders in the Africa trade came to Guangzhou as poor rural migrants who were snubbed by the urban elite, says Fall. Sharing some of the city's poorest neighbourhoods, they learn from each other. Chinese assistants provide their African employers with an invaluable link within the mainland. However, the workers also gain precious experience that they wouldn't get in local companies. 'We need help with everything: translating, talking with suppliers, meeting customers,' Sengabo says. 'Within a year or two, they know international business. Every lady working in an African trade office becomes a boss.' The interaction is instructive on many levels. As with many Chinese, shop assistant Chen Xiuli, 23, grew up with a poor image of African people. 'When I first arrived, I was so scared,' she says. 'I thought they were dirty. I couldn't interact. But working here has changed my views. I've made so many friends. I shared this experience with friends from home and they're amazed. My parents are very proud their daughter is working with Africans, doing international trade.' But while increasing numbers of Africans pursue the Chinese dream, realities can be grim. 'When you arrive, it's like a miracle,' says Fall. 'Everything is big and nice and you just think, 'China is good, let's go!' Then you see how hard it is. In Africa, the poor can ask for charity, so they're not so badly off. But in China, if you're poor, you're really poor. Chinese people work for almost nothing, but what they make is sold for so much.' Ultimately, Fall rates his mainland venture by indicators other than the profit margin. 'For many westerners in China, every day is a contest. They just want to get the money and leave. But Africans want to give, too,' he says. 'Westerners are quick to judge who is right or wrong. We'd rather work together till we get it right. This is how you make peace; this is what changes the heart.'