China’s incursion in Kenya’s higher education: Partner or Patron?

‘Africa is the cradle of mankind’, so say anthropologists and going by the recent interest from the East, it seems Africa is again the focus of the world. But having experienced the scramble for the continent by the west, Africa is treating there new friends from the East with caution.

While the Chinese interest in mining, infrastructure and other commercial ventures is purely economical, their foray in the education sector goes beyond economics.

The Peoples Republic of China is deliberate in establishing its culture and influence in Africa by creating a relationship not hinged purely on commercial links. It is to this end that the Chinese Confucius Institutes have been flourishing in Kenyan universities.

The Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi, Professor Sa Dequan, says the institute is primarily a language centre

“The Chinese Confucius Institute was established to teach people the Chinese language and culture. China has a rich history hence people are curious to know about it. The name of the institute was derived from the great Chinese philosopher Confucius who existed some 2000 years ago. The whole world knows about him and again if you want to know Asia China is the first place you should visit,” says Prof Dequan.

The institute has occupied the second floor of the Education building at UoN’s main campus. The well equipped Chinese classrooms are usually full with students in the campus who have taken an interest in the language. German and French have long been taught at UoN, but the passive-aggressive nurture of the Chinese has seen the centre eclipse the other language centres.

Fair view primary school students tasting the teas at KU Spring festival celebrations

“The Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi was the first Chinese institute to be established in Africa and it’s also the biggest. We have managed to train 3000 students who pursued certificates, diplomas and recently B.A Chinese language and linguistics.”

Prof. Dequan explains that the language and culture centre will help in easing the relationship between Africa and Chinese investors and workers at work in Africa as well as create opportunities for Kenyan students in China.

“There are numerous advantages of leaning Chinese. China has one of the largest population and economy in the world today and most of these investors are now investing in Africa …construction companies, mining and recently the media industry. Kenyans who speak Chinese have an upper hand when these companies recruit locally,” says Prof Dequan.

The institute also offers various scholarships to students to study in China, improving their chances in the job market. The Chinese government facilitates efficient processing of visas to Kenyans who want to go teach English in China.

There are numerous Chinese Confucius Institutes in Kenya, Africa and the rest of the world but the United States tops the list. The other Confucius Institute in Kenya is located at Kenyatta University. There are 30 Institutes in Africa, 50 in the United States and ten in Thailand.

Martial arts display by Kenyan students at Chinese spring festival celebrations

For Kennedy Machage – who is currently pursuing a diploma in Chinese language and linguistics – learning the language has been a childhood dream come true

“I grew up watching Chinese movies and took an interest in the language. The Chinese culture and rich history fascinates me. When I joined the University of Nairobi, I enrolled at the institute and did my certificate then enrolled for the diploma. I want to visit China one day and even learn the language more. Up to now the experience has been nothing short of fantastic. I look forward to everyday of learning,” says Machage.

Dr. Christine Mutuku, a Political Science lecturer at UoN, believes Africa for the first time has an option in international relations. She notes that unlike in the past where Africa was at the mercy of the west, the continent is becoming more assertive as a result of the options available.

“The rising Chinese influence in Kenya and Africa in general is in certain instances positive as it gives Africa an option. Though the relationship is still exploitative, it’s not like the West and Africa which had a lot of conditions. Africa can now enjoy development loans with no (political and human rights) conditions and low interest and better terms of repayment when they are dealing with China,” notes Dr. Mutuku.

She also firmly beliefs that just like the West, China is also keen to get a share of the African pie as it happens to be the most resource rich and a growing market for goods and services developed in other continents.

“China has a large population which it has to feed. These same people need to be economically empowered and as their economy continues to grow, they will need resources to fuel the industries and markets to sell their products. Africa needs to buy their Foton cars, buy the furniture and buy their machineries and in the process keep its population at work. If they really wanted to help Africa they could have brought the factories which will create more jobs for Kenyans.”

Spring festival celebrations at KU Business center

“Learning a language is part and parcel of learning culture since the two are inseparable and the Chinese scenario is not any different,” explains the Political Science lecturer.

But the cultural foray points to a bigger agenda of inculcating young minds into the Chinese life, heritage, culture and language. The vibrant student exchange programme and scholarships exposes African students to an alternative lifestyle, with the end game being adoption of Chinese culture which in turn fuels uptake of products from the Asian giant.

China also hopes to paint a more favorable image of itself to the world shedding off the (real or perceived) view of the communist society by welcoming foreigners to reside in China and an aggressive media accusation and expansion. The influence of China is clearly visible in the growth of Chinese restaurants in the country. More Kenyans are appreciating Chinese food and delicacies.

Photos: Margaret Muthee

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