Malaysia For Me Is…

After two weeks of intensive research, one week of even more intensive filming and endless amount of watermelon fresh juice consumed we have made it! Our documentary about African students in Malaysia is completed and online. Here is the backstage story of how it was to film African students in the heart and heat of Asia.

A guest contribution by Alexandra Samokhvalova for MALAYSIA INSIGHTS

Alexandra Samokhvalova  (left) and Melanie Gärtner
Alexandra Samokhvalova (left) and Melanie Gärtner

My name is Alexandra Samokhvalova and I am a researcher at AFRASO, working on the topic of African students’ migration to Malaysia. Together with Melanie Gärtner, the filmmaker from Frankfurt am Main, who has been successfully cooperating with AFRASO, I worked on the documentary production in Kuala Lumpur in January 2016.

Initially, my plan was to approach the topic of African student migration to Malaysia from three different perspectives, namely talk to African students about reason to choose Malaysia and their life in the country; collect opinions of Malaysian students about the growing African students’ community at local universities; and interview universities’ leaders on the internationalization policy in Malaysian higher education.

Melanie had to bring me down to earth. She explained that an online documentary, the format we were aiming at, should normally be not more than 20 minutes long. Thus it would be virtually impossible to fit in so much material. As a result, my ambitious plan was turned down and a new plan was born immediately: to find African students, whose backgrounds and opinions are diverse and multifaceted. Four protagonists, coming from four different countries in Africa (Namibia, Tanzania, Guinea and Chad), agreed to appear in the film and talk about their experiences of studying and living in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Malaysia.

The first challenge that we faced was very limited time for filming, we only had one week at our disposal. So we started on the day of Melanie’s arrival to Kuala Lumpur, and our first shooting took place at Jalan Alore, one of the most touristic streets in the capital. There we met street musicians, who moved from stand to stand and played their music in exchange for small change. We have gotten carried away by their talented performance and extraordinary looks, and invited them to participate in our filming. Luckily, they said yes and played several Bob Marley songs for us. What an experience: filming on one of the most crowded streets in Kuala Lumpur with cars squeezing through and people standing around, being attracted by our professional camera on a tripod, operated by Melanie, and an oversized “furry” microphone in my hands. “Is this love that I am feeling..?” – sang the front man of a nameless street band. (Due to intellectual property issues, the song could not be included in the final version of the film)

We dedicated one full day to each protagonist and followed him or her around, trying to get a glimpse into their everyday life and activities they enjoy most in Malaysia. First, we visited Kaiho, a Namibian student at UPSI, at his home in Tanjung Malim, 1,5-hour ride from Kuala Lumpur. He introduced us to his friends, other Namibian students at UPSI (Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris), showed us around the living block and invited to his apartment, which he shared with one other student. All Namibian students we got to know there stay in Malaysia under full scholarship from the Namibian government and study education in IT. We followed Kaiho to the laundry, witnessed his chess tournament with a friend and talked about Malaysia. “I would deny my own feelings, if I say that I don’t like Malaysia. I love this country”, was his verdict. – “Especially the tropical islands and endless beaches. And the quality of higher education here is so much better than back home”.

IMG_0948Our second protagonist Moustafa is Guinean by origin, who was born in Malaysia and plays rugby for IIUM (International Islamic University Malaysia). We decided to film him doing his routine workout at a school stadium. That is where the second challenge stroke: the heat! Even for me, an experienced Malaysia visitor, who was fully aware of the temperatures and humidity, it was almost unbearable to stay outside and carry our filming equipment around, let along Moustafa doing his exercises (again and again!) and Melanie following his every step with a camera. After 2 hours of shooting we felt like squeezed lemons, but proud of ourselves. In the evening, we were rewarded with roti canai and nasi goreng kampung at a traditional mamak stall. Do not think that we just relaxed after a busy day, we filmed there too! Moustafa and his friend Alif in one of the most traditional Malay surroundings, laughing and eating with their hands. “This shots are priceless!” – Melanie and I said to each other and ordered another round of freshly squeezed pineapple juice.

IMG_0947Jenny from Tanzania, our next protagonist, spoke openly about advantages and disadvantages of the higher education in Malaysia and future prospect of African students in the country. She mentioned that though Malaysia offers good quality education for reasonable prices, numbers of Africans coming to Malaysia might reduce if the negative sentiment towards them among local population does not fade away. Indeed, all our protagonists shared stories of negative attitude towards them in everyday life: let it be a taxi driver, who refuses to take them as a passenger; a hostel owner, who does not allow Africans to stay in shared rooms or other small but unpleasant incidents. Thus one of the aims of our documentary is to show that not all Africans in Malaysia are criminals, like stereotypes claim, many come to study. They learn the local language, respect the culture and admire the nature of Malaysia.

Youssouf, whom we met at campus of IIUM, told us that Malaysia became well known in Chad in the early 2000s, when Petronas joined the oil drilling project. However, nowadays Malaysia has earned its name in Chad as an excellent quality higher education provider. As a result, more and more students choose Malaysia as their study destination. “At times when many countries close their doors to students from Africa and the Middle East, Malaysia welcomes them!” , said Youssouf and reassured us that Malaysia would only benefit from that “policy of welcoming” in future. He showed us around the campus and left for his afternoon prayers at a big mosque next to the library. Later that day, he talked a lot about how Islam in Malaysia not only made him feel like home, but allowed him to learn more about his own religion. He spoke highly of the status of women and respect towards various religions and ethnic groups in the country.

Filming in Kuala Lumpur public areas was easy and trouble-free. No one would complain about our standing in the middle of the pedestrian way and almost blocking it or buying (and giving back) fruits from a stall again and again in search of a perfect shot. Funnily, politeness and shyness of the local population sometimes appeared as a challenge. Car stopped and waited (trying not to block the view), people turned back or tried to bend down not to appear in front of the camera exactly when we were hunting for city shots (with cars and people!). From time to time, I had to wave at car drivers and pedestrians to continue moving and not pay attention to us. Well, sometimes it worked!

All in all, it was an unforgettable experience for me! We reached our objective and finished the shooting in time; I met many nice people on the way, who showed their sincere interest in the project; I visited the corners of Kuala Lumpur I have never been to as a tourist before (the perks of staying at the capital for the whole month!) and fell in love with Malaysia and its welcoming culture once again. I sincerely hope that our film “Malaysia for me is …” would reach out to a wide audience and make them think of what Malaysia means for each of them. Hope you enjoy watching it!

Please watch the documentary “Malaysia for me is …” (2016) on:


AFRASO (“Africa’s Asian Options”, is an interdisciplinary and transregional collaborative research project at Goethe University Frankfurt. Started on 1 February 2013, it is set up as a major research project with national and international scope focusing on African-Asian interactions. One of the sub-projects of AFRASO is dedicated to the topic of migration of African students to Malaysia.

In order to make findings of AFRASO research open for the general public, the project has started documentary production, dedicated to various research topics. The first film, “Just another Chinese Guy” (2014), which narrates a story of a young Chinese entrepreneur in South Africa, received positive feedback. That success motivated AFRASO to continue the film series and produce a second documentary, this time on Malaysian ground.



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