East Africa’s youth turn to Chinese language in pursuit of better future

Tuesday February 12 2019

Chinese workers from the Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB) of Sinopec and Sudanese workers read cartoon books in an oil field in the District 3/7 in South Sudan on October 27, 2010. FILE PHOTO | NMG


Benjamin Bataringaya sat in the corner of an empty classroom, reading from a Chinese language textbook and then rewriting the characters in his exercise book.

For close to two years now, this has been his way of practicing and mastering how to read and write Chinese Mandarin.

“Unlike English which uses alphabets, in Mandarin, you have to learn and get the characters and tones right. This is what makes it a difficult language to learn in the beginning,” says Bataringaya, 21, a student major in organisational studies at Makerere University, who is taking Chinese language as a minor subject.

With daily practice, Mr Bataringaya says he now feels more confident speaking Mandarin with his teachers and classmates.

Recently, he also emerged the Uganda winner of the Chinese Bridge, an international culture and language proficiency programme for students from various institutions worldwide.

“I see a lot of opportunities as a Ugandan who can speak Chinese. I will become internationally marketable since Chinese businesses are expanding in Africa and beyond,” Mr Bataringaya tells The EastAfrican.


“They will need people who can speak the language to be a bridge between China and the rest of the world,” he adds.

Bataringaya is learning Mandarin from the Confucius Institute hosted at Makerere, Uganda’s oldest university.

Started in Uganda in 2014, it is one of over 50 Confucius Institutes spread across Africa, to teach and expose Chinese language and culture to the rest of the world.

The institutes, which are funded by the Chinese government through its Ministry of Education, known as Hanban, offer language classes to interested students enrolled in the host university’s various programmes but also to those outside of the university who are keen to learn Chinese.

“With 1.3 billion people and growing, China will soon be an economic superpower and those who can speak Chinese will benefit from this newfound status,” said Brenda Kunihira, a graduate of the Confucius Institute at Makerere University.

Ms Kunihira currently works as an interpreter and translator for a Chinese construction firm where she earns $300 in monthly salary — much higher than the average pay for an entry-level graduate job in Uganda.

On a continent where jobs are hard to come by, especially for young people, she says being able to speak and write Chinese opened doors for her.

Skills mismatch

“Even before I graduated, Chinese firms and business people were already hiring me to interpret for and translate legal documents and other business paper work. I also go to their meetings and help them translate things. Many of my colleagues who did not study Chinese have not found jobs yet,” Ms Kunihira boasts.

A 2016 report by the African Development Bank titled, Jobs for Youth in Africa found that of nearly 420 million youth aged 15 to 35, one-third are unemployed and discouraged, while another one-third are employed vulnerably because of skills mismatch with labour market requirements.

Ms Kunihira’s dream is to go to China and study for an advanced language course and become more marketable in the future job market.

Over the past two decades, China’s presence in Africa has been growing, with estimates from the China Global Investment Tracker, published by the American Enterprise Institute showing that between 2005 and 2018, Chinese investments and contracts in sub-Saharan Africa totalled $299 billion.

The majority of the investments are in the energy, transport and metals sectors.

But beyond the investments already being undertaken or underway, the Chinese government has made more financial promises to Africa.

During the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Co-operation held in Beijing, President Xi Jinping announced that China would provide an additional $60 million in financial support to the continent.

With many young Africans eager to benefit from these investments and improve their economic and job prospects, Chinese is one quick way they hope to achieve their dreams.

And as African countries add Chinese as a subject on their education curricula, the young people are embracing its learning. In East Africa, Uganda and Kenya have taken the lead.

The Kenya Curriculum Development Institute recently announced that a Mandarin syllabus has been completed and will be rolled out in 2020, staring with primary schools.

In Tanzania, Mandarin is increasingly becoming a common language taught in schools and universities, with many of the country’s young people enrolling to learn it.

In Uganda, Mandarin was included as a subject on the national school curriculum and starting this February, it is being taught in select public secondary schools across the country — and by the first set of locally trained Mandarin teachers.