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February 27, 2013

Blog: How a Kenyan journalism student caught the Chinese language bug

Margaret Muthee

Margaret Muthee is a convert to the benefits of learning Mandarin

In late 2012, when I first informed Margaret Muthee, a Kenyan friend, that I was travelling to Nairobi to conduct research for a series of articles on plans to pioneer the teaching of Mandarin in public schools in the East African nation’s capital, she laughed off the idea.

“Why would we teach Chinese?” asked Muthee, a third-year journalism student at the Nairobi-based Daystar University. It was a question that seemed to dismiss the idea outright rather than seek any answers.

Despite her tone, I offered an answer anyway, explaining that China was turning into “the next big thing” in global business and, as a result, perhaps the Kenyan government was trying to prepare its next generation to be in a position to tap into the opportunities that will be available to them in the fast-developing Asian country.

“Really?” she asked, still not sounding convinced. “Do you think [China] is taking over the world or what?”

In a bid to offer a more realistic example, I challenged her to find out the volume of trade between Kenya and China, and then compare it with similar statistics for countries that she believes are Kenya’s leading trade partners.

The results, which show that China is now Kenya’s leading trade partner with an annual trade growth rate of 30 per cent, didn’t move Muthee that much. She stuck to her guns.

“I don’t see me learning Chinese,” she said, resolutely. “Other [foreign] languages have been there and I haven’t heard of a plan to teach them across all schools.”

It emerged during our conversation that Muthee thought there was an ulterior motive behind the proposal to teach Mandarin in Kenyan public schools beyond the argument that it would help facilitate business between Kenyans and Chinese.

“I have no problem with it being taught at higher levels like the rest of foreign languages but primary [schools]? Really? It sounds likes there is another agenda. Next thing we [will be told to] dress like them and suddenly we are Chinese!” she concluded.

Ahead of my trip, I requested Muthee to help me find the contacts of some of the people I needed to speak to and to organise some of the interviews. When I eventually arrived in Nairobi, I asked her to tag along to the interviews and public events.

As we waited for the first interview with the Head of the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi, Prof. Sa Dequan, Muthee couldn’t help chuckling to herself every time she heard him speak the Chinese language. “It sounds funny,” she said.

However, the interaction with Chinese speakers and students at close quarters for about a week seemed to change Muthee’s perceptions. The first time she listened to Jacob Lukaka, the pioneer Kenyan lecturer of Chinese language at the University of Nairobi, speak the language, Muthee’s face lit up with a mixture of awe and excitement. She had never heard a Kenyan speak Mandarin before.

During the interview, Lukaka marvelled her with tales of his stay in China, where his ability to speak Chinese language endeared him to several people in the Asian country and won him many friends. At the end of the interview, before we parted ways, Lukaka talked of the different opportunities that he had got due to his knowledge of Chinese language. Eventually, Muthee couldn’t help confessing that he had inspired her greatly.

“I think I am going to study Chinese,” she said, eventually. “I think it gives you a unique advantage.”

Throughout my ten days in Nairobi, Muthee did not miss a single interview or event. She attended the Chinese Spring Festival/New Year celebrations at the University of Nairobi and a Chinese cultural week exhibition organised by the Confucius Institute at Kenyatta University. She also tagged along and sat through interviews that I had organised with officials at the Kenya Institute of Education (which is coordinating the preparation of a Chinese language curriculum for Kenya’s secondary schools), the ministry of education offices and the CCTV Bureau in Nairobi.

If Muthee had never given much thought to the idea of China as an influential player in Kenya, her sudden interest in the country showed. As we walked from one place to another on the streets of Nairobi, she kept pointing everything related to China; she noticed the Chinese restaurants sprinkled around the city, the technology and electrical companies/appliances. She even got to appreciate the fact that the Thika Superhighway, Kenya’s symbol of a much-anticipated take-off to a middle income country status, was constructed with the help of the Chinese government.

“These guys are everywhere,” she remarked at one point. “They are taking over. I think it gives one an edge to learn Chinese.”

By the time we were doing our last set of interviews about 10 days after my arrival in Nairobi, Muthee was speaking to the directors of the Confucius Institutes at Kenya University and the University of Nairobi about her resolve to enrol for the next intake of their Chinese language classes.

A day after I departed from Nairobi, the message on her facebook wall told the story of the complete transformation of her views on the teaching of Chinese language in Kenya. “So inspired to study Chinese,” she wrote. In response to a friend who promised contacts to good teachers of Chinese language, Muthee wrote, “I have more, trust me! I am so convinced…. This is not a joke.”

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