The lure of Chinese scholarships has an end-game in sight
KENYA: On December 19, 2005, China opened the first Chinese institute in Africa at the University of Nairobi (UoN).
This was after China had shopped around the continent for a welcoming host for its Confucius Institute, named after a Chinese philosopher. South Africa was deemed too prestigious and advanced to buy into the idea, Zambia dilly-dallied and Nigeria was treated with caution.
In the end, Kenya was chosen because it was the economic hub in East Africa and former President Kibaki’s regime was quick to act on the idea.
An agreement was signed between the university andChina’s Tianjin Normal University (TNU) in 2005. At the Confucius Institute, students are taught the basics of Chinese and China’s history.
China’s influence is growing in Africa through trade and infrastructure projects, but there is a need for the Asian giant to win over the hearts and minds of Africans.
This is why setting up the Chinese institutes in Africa makes sense especially to attract high school leavers and university students, teach them the language and offer them scholarships to study in China.
“Africans have seen China grow very fast. Many countries want to know China through the language. This is why we have been setting up the Chinese institutes to meet the growing need,” says Prof Sa Dequan, the director of the Confucius Institute at UoN, adding that businessmen, who source goods fromChina, are also enrolling at the institute.
The Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi School of Languages in the main campus had 20 students in two rooms in 2005, but now has 300 students and six lecture rooms.
Mr Eliud Ngei was among the first group of students to join the institute in 2005.
He was studying Economics and decided to add Chinese.
“The reason was to have a second language. Again, China was rising as a global economy and also my brother used to visit China twice a year for business and he played a part in me getting the interest to learn Chinese,” said Ngei.
In 2007, Ngei got a Green Card to the US where he now resides with his wife and family.
“The benefit (of studying Chinese) was just to have an interest in Chinese culture. I have forgotten a lot because I have nobody to practice it with. I just remember the greetings — Ni hao.”
Still, some Chinese culture has become embedded with Ngei even in America. “Over here we have many Chinese restaurants. Actually, Chinese food is one of my favourite, but I do not use the knowledge here so much,” he said.
Kenyatta and Egerton universities also have the institutes.
According to Mr Shifan Wu, Chief of Information and Public Affairs section at the Chinese Embassy, their Government has at least 64 scholarships per year. At present, he says, there are more 30 Chinese teachers and volunteers teaching Chinese in Kenya.
Juliet Gachago, 26, got a fully-paid scholarship through KU’s Confucius Institute in 2010 to study for a certificate in Chinese for 10 months. She only had to pay for her return air ticket. Accommodation, insurance, school fees and books were all paid for. She received a monthly allowance of about Sh18,200. “Money is never enough but this was enough for shopping and day-to-day use,” says the KU graduate with a degree in Hospitality and Tourism.
She says about 100 students enrolled at the institute but many dropped out and only 20 were left at the end of the course. The 20 sat an exam and six got scholarships. Now Ms Gachago acts as a translator for several of the Chinese tour firms. She also teaches English to Chinese children whose parents work in Nairobi.
With the Chinese Government having spent so much on her does she feel indebted to them?
“I feel like I owe them because if it were not for them I would not have gone there,” she said.
Analysts argue although the Chinese will not push for a quick return on the large amounts they are spending to educate thousands of African students; their returns are coming in other ways.
China’s Ministry of Education says about 5,000 African students are given scholarships each year with 6,717 offered last, according to China Daily’s Africa Weekly newspaper published in Nairobi.
Culturally, the more Africans understand the Chinese culture, and can speak the language, the easier it is to communicate. This is important with the Chinese increasing their presence on the continent, through business.
However, even as more students turn to China there are question marks on whether a degree from Chinawill be held in the same esteem as those from the Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton in the US or Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge universities.-standardmedia.co.ke