After completing her bachelor’s degree in international relations at the United States International University (USIU) in Nairobi, Kenya, Georgia Gitonga decided that she needed to learn an international language in order to boost her job prospects.
Eventually Gitonga, who is in her early twenties, zeroed in on a language that she believed would not only offer her great career prospects but also open the door to other opportunities to serve her country and continent. “I developed an interest in learning Chinese so that I could be able to bring Chinese people and African people together so that they can understand each other,” she said.
Gitonga enrolled for a certificate in Chinese language studies at the Confucius Institute in Kenyatta University. Now in the second semester of her programme, Gitonga has learnt more than the Asian language; she is also quite conversant with Chinese culture.
During a week-long exhibition at Kenyatta University to mark the start of the Chinese New Year, Gitonga was one of the students who were selected by the staff of the Confucius Institute to explain to other students and visitors different aspects of Chinese culture. Gitonga’s part of the exhibition was on the different types of tea that Chinese people consume, including black tea, flowered tea and green tea. Using small Chinese porcelain wares to demonstrate how to prepare Chinese green tea, Gitonga explained how to get the best out of the tea and the advantages of drinking it. “This green tea, you are not supposed to add anything to it,” she explained. “You just put only warm water in the tea; no sugar or milk. The secret is that it helps you in your digestion and also it prevents you from having headaches and it is good for blood circulation in your body.”
The cultural week involved several other activities – from playing Chinese board games, making dumplings and other Chinese snacks, Chinese calligraphy, to Chinese martial arts performances by Kenyan students.
Among the students following the exhibitions by Gitonga and other students affiliated to the Confucius Institute were Daniel Maragie and Benedict Muthoka, both pursuing bachelor of commerce degrees at Kenyatta University. The duo were attending a conference in the vicinity of the exhibition venue and decided – out of their own volition – to take some time off to observe activities on day three of the Chinese cultural week exhibition at their university.
Muthoka explained that they were keen to learn about Chinese language and culture because of the growing influence of the world’s most populous country in Africa. “China is taking over the whole of Africa majorly in investments and infrastructure development,” he said. “It is better to learn the Chinese language and their culture because they are taking over everything.”
“Nowadays the Chinese are many in Kenya,” added Maragie. “If you know how to communicate with them, then it will be easier to interact. If we understand them better, we can do much more.”
The government of China has certainly gone out of its way in an attempt to ensure that Kenyans like Maragie and Muthoka get to know and understand more about Chinese culture. China is currently Kenya’s leading trade partner, and in 2005, Kenya received the first Confucius Institute in Africa, which was based at the University of Nairobi.
Confucius Institutes are not-for-profit schools that are funded by the Chinese government to promote the teaching and popularisation of Chinese language in Africa. They are fashioned in the mould of the Alliance Française institutes established across Africa by the French, although the Confucius Institutes enjoy the added advantage of being attached to universities as independent departments awarding certificates, diplomas and degrees in Chinese language studies.
Since 2005, China has helped Kenya set up two other Confucius Institutes (at Kenyatta University and Egerton University), giving it and South Africa the highest number of such institutes on the African continent. At Kenyatta University, the Confucius Institute offers free lessons for one academic year to any student who is interested in learning the basics of Chinese language, an effort for which they receive a certificate. The students have reciprocated the gesture by registering for – and attending – the classes in droves. Some of those who complete the first year decide to enrol for a diploma in Chinese language studies at the Confucius Institute.
According to Dr Martin Njoroge, the Director of the Confucius Institute at Kenyatta University, more than 1,000 students registered for Chinese language classes in the first semester of 2013. The University of Nairobi has a much smaller number, according to Prof Sa Dequan, the head of its Confucius Institute, but that is largely because they do not have the open door policy that has been implemented at Kenyatta University. But the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi, which was the first of its kind on the entire African continent, has pioneered many things of its own. At the end of 2013, the institute will have its – and Kenya’s – first locally trained recipients of bachelors’ degrees in the Chinese language.
The institute is also conducting a pioneer programme in which a select group of secondary school teachers from schools within the Kenyan capital learn Chinese. The group of about 20 teachers are then expected to popularise Chinese among students in their respective institutions.
The teacher training programme is expected to lay the foundation for the eventual formal introduction of Chinese as an elective, a process that the government of Kenya is already planning for. Currently, the government of Kenya – with the help of Kenyan and Chinese experts – is developing a curriculum that would pave the way for the teaching of the Chinese language in public schools (secondary and primary) within a year or two.
That is an opportunity that the likes of Muthoka missed, though he says members of his generation would have liked to have got it. “Me and my friend here, we want to learn Chinese,” he said, tapping Maragie on the shoulder repeatedly. “If we were given that opportunity in High School, it would have been better”.
Muthoka however believes it is not too late for his generation, who can take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Confucius Institute at the three universities in Kenya. “It is just a matter of two years and you can speak frequently and fluently,” he said, quite enthusiastically.
Maragie welcomes the idea of teaching Chinese language in public schools because he believes it will spread interest in the language even faster in Kenya. He said, “They are introducing these to the young ones; you see the young ones capture things faster than the older people. The young ones are easier to teach”.
As Kenya waits for the teaching of Chinese language to be rolled out in its public schools, those Kenyans who are already learning the language like Gitonga envisage several opportunities ahead. As Dr Njoroge noted, with trade between China and Kenya on the rise, opportunities will increase in fields like education, communication and tourism.
Gitonga, who has a degree in international relations, has already set her sights on one particular job in the public service. “I want to be a Kenyan ambassador sent to China so that I will be a link between China and Kenya,” she said. At the Chinese cultural week organised by the Confucius Institute at Kenyatta University, Gitonga excelled as an ambassador for Chinese language and culture in Kenya.
If Kenya’s education system continues to churn out more of her kind, then the bond between East Africa’s biggest economy and the world’s largest could continue to grow stronger.