Several countries around Africa are reacting to China’s growing influence in different ways, including by introducing the teaching of the Chinese language. In part I of this six-part series published in The Observer , Benon Herbert Oluka examines China’s increasingly influential role in Uganda and how the government is reacting to it, especially in the education sector.
From the time Joe Ruhuma first travelled to China in 2004 to buy merchandise, the Ugandan businessman struggled to communicate with his Chinese business partners. Some of Ruhuma’s Chinese counterparts could barely string together coherent sentences in English. And he did not know a word of Mandarin, the official national language of China.
“The biggest challenge I got was with the language, with communication,” he said. “When you go to China, you find a lot of problems with negotiations and reading documents if you do not speak or write in Mandarin.”
To get around in China, Ruhuma would hire translators. However, he says, the interpreters could not always be with him wherever he wanted to go. As a result, he got cheated a few times, for instance, by taxi drivers.
“I wasn’t comfortable even after hiring interpreters occasionally. In the hotel, if I wanted any service, I couldn’t communicate properly,” said Ruhuma, who is involved in importing laboratory and industrial chemicals from China.
Eventually, as his travels to China became more frequent, Ruhuma decided to enrol at Makerere University Institute of Languages in 2010, for a course in Mandarin. As a result, he says, today he finds it much easier to navigate his way around China.
“It helped me a lot because I could ask for where the hotel is,” he said. “Before, I could ask a policeman, and they couldn’t help me once I used English. But when I learnt a bit of Mandarin, I could even negotiate and talk business with the Chinese.”
China is currently the world’s second biggest economy, and is on track to overtake the US by 2016, according to various studies. As China spreads its trade and other tentacles around the world, individuals like Ruhuma, and the organisations that they represent, are likely to face problems doing business with their counterparts in the ‘world’s workshop’, as the Asian country is known in some quarters. And yet, as statistics over the recent past have shown, the linkages between Uganda and China are growing ever deeper.
In the 2011/12 financial year, according to statistics compiled by the Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), China overtook Britain as the East African country’s leading business partner.
Giant in Uganda
Today, China accounts for at least 30 per cent of all of Uganda’s foreign trade. A similar story is unfolding across most of the African continent, where China now has a footprint in more than half of the 52 African countries. In fact, China has grown its investment portfolio in Africa so fast that, according to estimates by the South Africa-based Standard Bank, it became Africa’s largest export market in 2012, a rapid rise from four years ago, when the continent’s exports to China were just half of what it exported to the US.
In mid-2012, China also promised to inject $20bn in investments and loans to various African countries over a three-year period. That figure is two times the amount that China had offered to the African continent for a similar period starting 2009. Buoyed by such huge investments, the Chinese presence in Africa is now so pronounced that they seem to be in every sector of each economy.
In Uganda, for instance, China already has a footprint in Uganda’s oil sector where the state-owned Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) has bought a stake in the company that recently discovered the black gold. In the communications sector, Huawei Technologies is a major player in the expansion of Uganda’s fibre-optic infrastructure among other multi-million dollar telecommunications deals, and in the construction sector, Tian Tang Group of Companies, is a leading producer of construction materials.
There are also several Chinese contractors doing Uganda’s roads. In total, according to the Chinese Embassy in Uganda, there are currently more than 200 Chinese companies in Uganda, which are estimated to employ about 30,000 locals. As the interaction between Chinese and Ugandan business continues to grow, communication becomes ever more important. This is an area though where Uganda has major deficiencies. Different analysts have pointed out that Uganda is ill-equipped to deal with its leading trade partner.
During a consultative meeting on the draft national migration policy between the ministry of Internal Affairs and officials from the Chinese Embassy in late May 2012, Chinese officials said investors from their country asked the government to avail interpreters at the airport for those who cannot speak English.
“It is only a few of us who know a bit of English. Most of our people find it hard to access services because they cannot communicate,” said Zio Xiaoming from the Chinese Embassy, adding that some Chinese investors to Uganda have been deported in the past due to the language barrier.
Do you know China?
According to officials from the Immigration office, Ugandan traders have in turn submitted several complaints to the Internal Affairs ministry of being cheated while doing business in China because of the fact that they do not have a mutual language for communication. Given the above situation, should the government of Uganda take a conscious decision to bridge the communication gap with China? Several actors and commentators in a series of sectors in Uganda think that should be the case.
Former vice president Prof Gilbert Bukenya, (also Busiro North MP) and Muhammed Nsereko (MP Kampala Central) have been at the forefront of calls on the government to introduce the teaching of the Chinese language, Mandarin, in Uganda’s secondary schools. In an attempt to illustrate a similar argument during the launch of the China-Africa Friendship Association-Uganda (CAFAU) in March, the former Ugandan Ambassador to China, Philip Idro, borrowed from a well-known Chinese figure.
He quoted Chinese author Sun Tzu’s views in the book, The Art of War, about the need to know one’s ‘enemies’ (or, as Idro added, one’s friends) and oneself in order to help determine the kind of relationship between the two and to determine success in a difficult situation.
“For those of you who want to do business with China, do you know China? In any case, do you know yourselves, at least in comparison to the Chinese? This is the fundamental start (in succeeding to do business with China) so you have to challenge yourself,” he told a gathering that included Vice President Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi, ministers and other government officials.
“Today, whether we like it or not, the gravity of the world economy is going towards China. They are the biggest manufacturers in the world and the world respects that of China. We need a bit more research, a bit more analysis and a bit more aggressiveness rather than quarrelling about going to China to buy one suitcase (of goods), quarrelling about going to China to learn the language. That is not a big issue because the Chinese are here learning our language and our culture and they know what to do. We can go there and do it as well,” he added.
Top government officials may have heard such calls, but they have probably paid little attention to them, if evidence at top education institutions across the country is anything to go by. Currently, Makerere University is the only institution of higher learning in Uganda that has ventured into teaching Mandarin. However, since the country’s leading public university started teaching the language in 2004, its attempt has been half-hearted at best – at least until Makerere launched a Confucius Institute last month.
The university offers Mandarin only for beginners and for interpreters as a post-graduate diploma course at the Institute of Languages. According to Moses Kiwanuka Sserwada, a translator, interpreter, instructor and administrative assistant attached to the Chinese language project, since 2008 they have only been receiving 5-15 students per intake.
While Makerere had hitherto confined Mandarin to a mere project at the Institute of Languages, several universities across Africa, and more specifically around East Africa, have made bigger strides over the past 10 years. Institutions of higher learning around East Africa that have fully-fledged departments for teaching Mandarin include the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University and Egerton University (all in Kenya), as well as the Kigali Institute of Education in Rwanda.
Makerere has finally caught up with these institutions with its own Confucius Institute, which was launched in partnership with Xiangtan University in China. According to the Principal of the College of Humanities and Social sciences, Prof. Edward Kirumira, the institute will admit about 40 to 50 students, who will pursue a bachelor’s degree in Chinese for three years, after which they will proceed to China for another year to further their Chinese language skills.
However, as this series will show in subsequent articles, the delay to start a Confucius Institute in Uganda means the country is lagging behind other African countries that are moving faster in developing cross-cultural linkages with China. In Kenya and Nigeria, for instance, the governments are taking advantage of the foundation laid by having had Confucius Institutes for five years or more to take the extra step of launching Mandarin as an elective language in public schools (secondary and primary).
In Uganda, the only other post-primary academic institution that has attempted to teach Mandarin to its students is Luyanzi College, a secondary school ensconced within the premises formerly occupied by Progressive Secondary School in Bweyogerere near Kampala. Listening to the head teacher of Luyanzi College, Jimmy Dheyongera, one senses that the management of this private school read the sign of the times, and was keen to get a head-start when it pioneered the teaching of Mandarin in 2011.
“We became interested in Chinese language when it became clear that the Chinese economy is growing and there is no country in the world without Chinese commodities. We also came to realise that everyday people leave the African continent and elsewhere to go to China to do business and their biggest handicap is in the area of communication. That is how we came to think of teaching people the Chinese language,” he said.
Luyanzi College is reaping the fruits of links that span almost two decades between some of the school’s directors and their Chinese friends. Dheyongera says he cultivated relationships in China when he was working in the ministry of Foreign Affairs in the early 1990s and the Chinese were constructing the Mandela National Stadium in Namboole. He says another member of the school’s board of directors, Ayoub Sooma, studied electronics engineering in China and is married to a Chinese lady, who is also a board member.
Last year, Luyanzi College formalised their quest to teach Mandarin by signing an agreement with Uganda’s Ministry of Education and the Chinese Embassy in Kampala. The agreement has since borne several fruits for the school. Those fruits have come in the form of a $90,000 grant from the Chinese Embassy for Luyanzi College to construct a primary school where Mandarin will be taught, as well as equipment like computers, television sets and books to facilitate the teaching of Mandarin at Luyanzi College. The Chinese Embassy has even helped to provide human resources to Luyanzi College.
“We can proudly say we caused the coming to Uganda of the first batch of Chinese language volunteers,” beams Dheyongera. “They were about 18 people distributed to different sectors.”
The Chinese Ambassador to Uganda, Zhao Yali, says the group of volunteer Mandarin teachers sent to places like Luyanzi College is not the last that Uganda will host.
“We should see more volunteers or some other teachers coming to Uganda to teach Chinese language,” he said on the sidelines of the launch of CAFAU in Kampala in early March.
Chinese not strategic
The challenge for Uganda then is to get its act together. Over the last few years, the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) in Uganda has been developing a new curriculum and, by happenstance, Dheyongera is one of the schools heads who has been consulted.
“They said Chinese is one of the languages they wanted to add to the curriculum. They wanted to develop a syllabus and they were seeking my advice on that,” he said.
A series of online correspondences and a visit to the NCDC headquarters in Kyambogo however didn’t provide a conclusive position. Attempts to meet with the officials in charge of developing the new curriculum were futile. The NCDC Spokesperson, Grace Sennoga said, “We too [are] considering having Chinese taught as an elective under foreign languages.”
At the Ministry of Education and Sports offices, the officials were more forthright. The Commissioner for Planning, Joseph Eilor, said while the government recognised the importance of Mandarin in the new world order, the new curriculum would focus on areas where it wants Ugandans to enjoy a comparative advantage like value addition.
“Chinese language is not very strategic for us now,” he said.
“China is our biggest trading partner but what are we selling to China? We are only selling primary goods, so it is not really helping the balance of payments. If you really want to have meaningful trade with China, you must also be selling something of value.
“That language advantage doesn’t bring anything,” he continued. “The language advantage is only useful if we have something of value to sell to China. That is when we can also say we need our Chinese language experts there. But what are you going to negotiate in China when China is predominantly supplying everything? What is there to negotiate?”
Eilor said the language centre at Makerere University is sufficient for Uganda at the moment.
“That means we also recognise the importance of the language,” he said. “Even if we want to train people now, we can still train them. You don’t have to make everybody learn the Chinese language.
“What we may not see soon in Uganda is what Kenya is trying to do by having it in secondary schools,” he said, referring to the plan by the Kenyan government to introduce Chinese language in secondary and primary schools.
“For you to introduce a language and make it compulsory, it has huge budgetary requirements. First of all, just formulating a curriculum will cost billions of Uganda shillings; then training teachers and buying learning materials and textbooks, more billions. The problem is that when you are operating on a tight budget, you have to make some trade-offs and in this country, if we concentrate on skills development, the pay-off is huge.”
This series was prepared with support from the China-Africa Reporting Project in the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.