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Learning Mandarin booms in Kenya

Eva de Vries
May 14, 2018

China's presence in Africa is growing. Hot on the heels of the economic boom is a flowering of Chinese language schools, targeting young Kenyans –hoping to increase their chances of work on the competitive job market.

Nairobi - China in Afrika
Image: DW/E. d. Vries

Chinese language courses boom in Kenya

In a primary school classroom decorated with Chinese lanterns and posters, a group of children diligently repeat Chinese words after their teacher. The kids are Kenyan and the school is in Ruiru, just north of the capital Nairobi. Besides working from their textbooks and learning new words, the kids also sing Chinese songs and practice poems.

One of the students is 13-year-old Lucia, in a red t-shirt and braided hair.  She sits tall in the front row carefully writing in her notebook and explains why she wants to learn Chinese:

"It's an interesting language to learn. When I go to another country, I can teach other people Chinese. Also, I can help with translation for others."

The class is made up of students between the ages of seven and 13 and, like Lucia,keen to learn Chineseat Ruiru Fairview Primary. 

Nairobi - China in Afrika
Headteacher James thinks learning Chinese will give his pupils a headstart for the futureImage: DW/E. d. Vries

Mandarin is an important part of the curriculum

Headteacher James, a proud tall man in a brown suit, explains why Chinese, or Mandarin as the specific language is called, is such an important part of their curriculum. He believes that learning the Asian language will give his pupils a head start.

"Right now – the people who are really into this country doing a lot of things, due to cooperation with the government, are the Chinese. For example, the Thika Super Highway is built by the Chinese. So we need translators, people who talk to one another. Once our children continue that way, by the time they reach higher levels of learning, they'll be so good at it they will fit into the job market in each and every field."

In Nairobi, Chinese courses are on offer to all age groups even outside the schools. Business people, students and graduates searching for a job on the competitive job market often sign up for them.

'It's the right time for Kenyans to learn Chinese'

Faith Wanjiku fell in love with the Chinese language and culture many years ago. After studying in China for a year, she now speaks the language fluently and established her own institute: The Discovery Chinese Cultural Center. She organizes classes all over the city. When opening the door of her office, Faith greets people in Mandarin with the words "Ni Hao!

Nairobi - China in Afrika
Teacher and language school owner Faith Wanjiku fell in love with the language and culture after a year spent in ChinaImage: DW/E. d. Vries

"I feel it's the right time for Kenyans to learn Chinese. The government is engaging with Chinese people to build infrastructure in Kenya. This infrastructure should provide economic development in the country and Chinese companies need employees. 90% must be Kenyans according to our government rules."

Today she is teaching in Westlands, an uptown suburb in Nairobi, 12 eager students practice pronunciation, vocabulary and characters.

Faith seems to have done the right thing. When she started the center back in 2011, only five students enrolled on the course. Now she has more than 100.

Watch out for those tones!

During the break, over a strong cup of black tea, one of the students, also called Faith explains how she approaches learning Mandarin.  

"It's not that difficult. It's easier to learn numbers in Chinese, you just have to group them. But you have to be careful with the tones," she laughs.

In a café in the city center, the benefits of learning Chinese are obvious for someone like Benson Kawangire. Now in his late twenties, he worked hard at Chinese to improve his job prospects. He found a job as an interpreter for the Standard Gauge Railway a large Chinese company constructing the Nairobi – Mombasa railway.

Just before his night shift, which starts at six in the evening, he starts by explaining that his Chinese name signfies 'highest value'. He first went to China without knowing a word of Chinese.

Nairobi - China in Afrika
'It's not that difficult. It's easier to learn numbers in Chinese. You just have to watch out for the tones!'Image: DW/E. d. Vries

Learning Mandarin pays on the job market

"Ok, the Chinese language is very difficult but very interesting. The hardest parts of it are the characters and reading them. You talk in tones,"  he demonstrates with one word with different tones, elaborating on the meaning for each one.

Benson acts as a sort of language bridge between the Kenyans and Chinese at his company. He likes his job, and the pay check, but he has also encountered challenges.

"The biggest difference between Kenyans and Chinese is the timing. For Kenyans, timing is not so important. The Chinese are very strict when it comes to time, on duty and off duty. They start working much earlier."

Back at the Chinese school, Faith is playing some Chinese kids music to help them get into the mood for class

Like Benson, she also underlines the challenges. The arrival of the Chinese has created many opportunities for Kenyans but it doesn't all come without problems.

Nairobi - China in Afrika
Language centers like this one are booming in Kenya as young and old rush to improve their prospects on the job marketImage: DW/E. d. Vries

"Some people complain about harsh treatment by Chinese companies. At the end of the day it's a lack of understanding about each other's culture. Chinese people also don't understand Kenyans at all. So there is conflict over different cultural understandings. However, I feel the government should protect its own people. By rules or sanctions that will ensure that Kenyans will retain their place and that the Chinese can only go so far."

She hopes that her center – together with the many other Chinese language schools – will play an important role in improving the mutual understanding between Chinese and Kenyans. As she is talking, Faith receives about four phone calls from people who are interested in her course – confirming her expectations for the future: that her language school, like many others around here, is on to a winning streak.

If you want to hear more about the cooperation between the Chinese and people in Africa then tune in to The 77 Percent Radio show here: 

The 77 Percent: Is China 'really' a friend of Africa?