Africa People

The rest of life beginning with a fight in an African slum

The interview with Li Ling was over the phone. I was in Paris, and she was in Bordeaux. It was a late spring night with bright moonlight. In the middle of the conversation, she suddenly shouted into her phone for me to look up at the sky. “The NASA space station just passed overhead!”

I didn’t even have time to put on my slippers and ran to the window. Unfortunately, the density of living in Paris is high, and buildings separated the sky. In Bordeaux, she lived in a small courtyard on the edge of the town, and she could see it. When she came back, she said in an excited tone that the passing of the space station was like a shooting star, which was bright but soon was gone.

That night, though I didn’t see the shining space station she described, I heard the story of a girl who has lived through the ups and downs of the past nearly three decades. She told me the story of being a police officer in China, quarreling with a group of men in an African slum, quitting her job after she fell ill, and meeting the love of her life at first sight in a Spanish town.

Eight foggy winters in Nanjing

Though Li was small and thin, she graduated from the police college and took courses in investigation, combat, and criminal psychology for four years, which was the willingness of her family. “I didn’t think it was important at that time. I was used to listening to my father.” But she did not like the environment around her on campus as comparison and material desire made her feel uncomfortable. She also had no idea about what she expected for the future.

After graduation, Li successfully entered the public security system as a police officer, which was not her original intention. During the six years of working experience, Li changed her position four times, but the work content was much the same. For her first two years on the job, she was disturbed by sexual harassment in the office. “I’ve asked a lot of people for help, but they all told me this is the way it is, and I should just get used to it.”

Desperate with the default grayness, Li opted for an extreme form of self-help: She quickly married her boyfriend from the same office, even if he was not the proper one. But as they cannot continue to work in the same unit according to the policies, Li was transferred to the new position. It was her only way to escape.

Such a life was destined to be unhappy, but six years passed soon. The turning point was Li’s health problem. Lying on the bed in the hospital, she realized that she wanted to make her decision for herself, rather than do what “others thought was right.” She wanted to be a student again,  studying a major she liked and pursuing a career she was passionate about.

Fortunately, Li recovered successfully. After leaving the hospital, she got a divorce, bought a plane ticket, and went to Seville, Spain. Not sure what to do, not finding a place to live, but she “doesn’t want to be stuck in the shell anymore.”

Love in Seville

After landing in Sevilla, Li Ling was a little confused due to the language barrier. When she saw a little familiar face in a small pub on the street side of the city, she went up immediately and asked him: “Have we met before?”

The boy, who had biked from France to Spain, was surprised but invited her to sit down. In the later communication, Li Ling learned that his name was Thomas, and she felt familiar because they had both used “couch surfing” to find accommodation in this small city.

Thomas is a programming engineer and an excellent documentary photographer. From Africa to Asia, he documented human stories that no one knew. His photos of refugee camps were featured in National Geographic.

Thomas was teaching children how to use camera

Many photographers love to shoot disasters and show the pain and suffering of human communities. But in the lens of Thomas, Li saw all the smile and warmth. Because he believes that the human will is so strong and fantastic, Thomas said he wanted to prove through his photographs that even in the most difficult circumstances, happiness can still exist.

Thomas photographed in a school in Liberia, a student making a face to the camera

Li spent half a month in the Spanish town with Thomas. He often asked her, “Why did you come here?” and “What do you want to do with your life?” Li couldn’t give a definite answer. After denying her entire past life, how should she choose a way to begin again?

However, while getting along with Thomas, Li was impressed and inspired by his way of living. He is always thinking of doing something to make the world a better place. Even though he is a programming engineer, he regularly works as a volunteer photographer in NGOs to convey the reality and struggles of the world through his images, to help people in difficulties.

Li decided to apply for a master’s degree in human rights law. With a background in law, she has been concerned about refugees and has met North Korean refugees living outside the country during her work. Inspired by Thomas, Li Ling also wanted to make a small change to the world.

Li and Thomas got married two years after they met in coincidence. Their honeymoon was a month-long cycling trip to Japan. They carried tents by sea and at the foot of the mountain, camped under cherry trees, and washed in convenience stores and toilets in the city. Two years before, she was on her deathbed worrying that she only had five years left to live, but she rode over a thousand kilometers in a month, and her skin tanned to a healthy wheat color.

Li cycling 1,000 km in Japan

Li eventually decided to study human rights law at the University of Kent’s Belgian campus, but her focus remained on refugee issues. She studied the regulations on refugees in international human rights law and how international aid can change the plight of refugees. During her studies, she also worked as an intern in the European Parliament for half a year, handling various legal documents. Led by a Maltese politician with extensive diplomatic experience, she worked in a team where many ideas collided.

But this rich learning and practical experience unexpectedly aggravated Li’s sense of powerlessness. She saw the redundancy and slowness of the vast legislative system in the face of an urgent humanitarian crisis, as well as the handicap of being neutral.

Li was very concerned about the crisis of Rohingya refugees, who were living in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp on the border with Bangladesh. They were stateless, homeless, and unable to guarantee their right to life. The international human rights law system, no matter how perfect and clear, cannot protect an ordinary little girl in a refugee camp from the tragic fate of being abused and killed.

It was then that Li applied for a job in the Human Rights Commission of Ghana, a West African country near the equator. Her past knowledge and experience are translated into reality there, and she gets a glimpse of how the system of human rights law affects individuals.

Melancholic Ghana

Li Ling has a lot of freedom to work in Ghana. Her responsibility was to produce a report on human rights in Ghanaian prisons, which she could use as she pleased within limits.

To better approach and understand potential research subjects, Li Ling contacted a shelter in a slum through the staff of a local NGO. She was the only foreigner in the entire slum. Her living place was shabby that she could only bathe in cold water for three months. And the rent is $100 a week. The only good thing about living in a slum was that she could be surrounded by people she needed to talk to and people who have been in prison themselves or family or friends. Through literature reading and a large number of interviews, she explored the protection of the human rights of Ghanaian prisoners by international human rights law, understood why most Ghanaian prisoners came from slums and explored the influence of people’s living environment on criminal acts.

Li with colleagues from the Ghana Human Rights Commission

The work itself was very fulfilling, but Li Ling’s life in the slum was difficult. The NGO staff who contacted her for accommodation scammed her of two months ‘rent. What was worse was that her credit card was stolen so that she had no cash to turn around. She finally found the person who scammed her, loudly questioned and asked him to return the money. “I didn’t have any money, and I grabbed him by the collar and threatened to give it back to me. It was desperate and scary.

What made her suffered most was not the hardship of the living environment but the evil of human nature. The warm-hearted people who arranged her accommodation only wanted to cheat her two months ‘rent. The neighbors drank and chatted with her in the slums only wanted her to pay for the food and drinks.

 “I couldn’t bear the huge gap. I didn’t expect a world of paradise, but I didn’t expect human nature to be that bad either. They’re not supposed to be bad people, but they’re just normal people.

Frustrated, she was about to leave Ghana early, having already booked her flight home. The muddy, sultry, and unpoetic Ghana of the rainy season was also a reason for leaving


At a random moment, Li Ling passed by a tuk-tuk (local public transportation) nearby a market. The car was full of people, some hanging on the door frame of the car and shouting, and others singing in the car. It was a scene that made Li Ling decide to stay. “It was a very vivid image, and I suddenly realized that this is life, and you can’t escape from it. The lives I wanted to escape were normal days and nights of these people.”

Later, when Thomas knew about Li Ling’s dilemma, he gave up his work and came to Ghana to be with her. Thomas is a man who can blend in with local life. Many things that Li Ling thinks are unacceptable are normal to Thomas.

Li Ling had a good friend in Ghana who always asked Li Ling for things. Li thought it was like a friendship with a price, which needed to be exchanged with equal value. However, Thomas reminded Li that she should not judge others by her value standard anymore. In many cases, the cultural environment is different, and the other party is not malicious. Li Ling gradually adjusted her attitude, and she still keeps in touch with her friend in Ghana.

Li hiking the highest peak in Ghana with Thomas and her best friend in the slums.

The experience in Ghana also helped Li Ling reflect on why she chose to major in human rights law. She once believed in the power of law and system and believed that the rules of human society could change the “evil” part of human nature. However, during her time in Ghana, Li Ling realized that it is difficult to change human nature. The cruel and greedy part of people can hardly be removed by external forces.

However, that doesn’t mean the work involved is meaningless. We can’t change everyone’s individuality, but we can change everyone’s surrounding environment. We can make a better environment to restrain the “evil” part of human nature, thus reducing the violence and abuse in the world.

A dreary spring in Bordeaux

After finishing her internship in Ghana, Li Ling returned to Europe to continue her studies. She had planned to work for an NGO that focuses on refugee issues in Southeast Asia after graduation, but the outbreak of the epidemic disrupted her plan. She now lives at home in Bordeaux, with her husband and family in France. Spring in France is a charming season, but Li Ling could not resolve uncertainty about the future.

The feeling of boredom and powerlessness that she had no control over overtook her back years. The job-hunting season, which was delayed indefinitely by the epidemic, made Li feel anxious about wasting her time. She also lacked a platform to continue her research on the refugee issue.

By chance, she learned that China House could provide an opportunity for online research and study, and she agreed with the concept of “Chinese Global Citizen” advocated by it very much. The recognition stems from her own experience in Ghana. There are many public welfare organizations in Ghana that gather volunteers from all over the world, but Chinese people are the only missing ones. Her slum neighbors, referring to the Chinese, always said with one voice: “The Chinese are here to make money.” She was keenly aware that changing such stereotypes requires more Chinese to go abroad and participate in international development affairs.

Therefore, she started online research with several partners in China House about Burmese brides who trafficked into China. With the tutor’s help and guidance, she did abundant literature reviews and had in-depth exchanges with many Myanmar women’s empowerment NGOs, international organizations, senior scholars in relevant fields, and heads of domestic institutions. In the process of constantly breaking her cognitive boundaries, she stepped into the real world of this little-known marginalized group.

“At first, I felt that since the Burmese brides were trafficked, this kind of illegal activity should be seriously punished and forbid. But as I researched more and more, I began to find a more humanized balance based on the needs of these women.”

In the process of research, Li Ling also gained unexpected inspiration and touch. “That was our team’s first interview with the Myanmar program director of Human Rights Watch. When she saw us, she was surprised and said, “I rarely meet a Chinese research team. I am touched that you are interested in this topic. I also hope you can do something to help these vulnerable groups. ‘”

Trafficking women and refugees do not get much coverage in the Chinese media, and Li hopes to draw more attention through her report. “Regardless of nationality, I believe it is the responsibility and obligation of every citizen of the world to understand human suffering and to share and solve it in the way that we can.”

This survey also made Li Ling more determined to devote herself to China House. “I can use what I have learned to help those who have ideas to become global citizens so that I can live up to my lucky life!”


During the interview, Li Ling kept saying that she was very lucky, which made me confused.

She said, “In my opinion, having choices and the ability to change my life is the greatest blessing. I’ve born once but lived twice.” During her time as a police officer and later as a human rights major, Li Ling saw too many people unable to fight their fate and circumstances. Looking back on her past life, Li Ling feels that even those days with sadness and anger were a waste of life. Because every moment spent, every setback, every sobriety after failure, is a way to find yourself.


The chat with Li Ling was relaxed and pleasant.

There was a natural, unpretentious romance about her, and, best of all, she had the same kindness to the world.

Written by China House

Translated by Carol and Boyana


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