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Learning Chinese

The Mandarin road to success

by Derrick Silimina

Nowadays

As Africa’s population grows, many young people have trouble finding jobs. More than 15 million Africans aged 15-24 are unemployed, representing 13.5% of that age group, according to the policy-oriented Mo Ibrahim Foundation. That percentage is more than twice the unemployment rate of Africans aged 25 and over (6.1%), showing that joblessness hits young people the hardest.

There is, however, a ray of hope for the unemployed: learning the Chinese language, and especially its main variant, Mandarin. In Zambia, as elsewhere in Africa, learning Chinese is catching on as a way to escape unemployment.

In Zambia, the blossoming relationship with China began more than 50 years ago and has boosted the economy considerably. Today about 1,000 Chinese companies have a presence in Zambia, in sectors including manufacturing, retailing, agriculture, infrastructure, health and education.

However, a language barrier between Zambians and Chinese can make communication bumpy. While China makes efforts to train its people who have dealings in Zambia in the official local language, English, language barriers remain – particularly in parts of Zambia that use one of the country’s seven official vernacular languages.

The language barrier has created a need for Zambians who can communicate with suppliers and headquarters personnel in China. With the cooperation of Zambia’s education officials, China is promoting Mandarin language skills in Zambia through the Confucius Institute, a government-funded partnership between Chinese universities and universities in other countries.

The Confucius Institute in Zambia enrols more than 80 university students per semester in its courses. It offers six levels of instruction in afternoon and evening classes. This instruction responds to a clear demand, says Zhang Run, deputy director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia. “We receive calls every day from Chinese companies in Zambia looking for employees who can speak Chinese,” he says.

In addition to offering university-level courses, Zambia’s government has signed an agreement with the Confucius Institute to provide Chinese instruction at junior and senior secondary schools. The Teaching Council of Zambia, an educators’ group, welcomes the move. “This will bring value to the country's education system,” says Council Registrar Ebby Muganga.

Many Zambian graduates have found jobs as interpreters in Chinese-owned companies. Others have been hired as human resources managers, secretaries and line executives liaising with headquarters. “I am grateful to the authorities who made it possible for me to learn Chinese,” says Thandiwe Chaaba, a secretary at Hongsen Investment Ltd., a Chinese firm with a factory in Lusaka's Industrial Area. The Hongsen plant recycles plastic bottles into other wares such as dishes, cups and buckets. Chaaba serves as liaison between her Chinese employers and local clients and workers.

Zambian wholesalers and retailers – just like local employees of Chinese-owned companies – also find it useful to speak Chinese. One example is Memory Tembo, the 30-year-old owner of a small retailing business in Lusaka. She has enrolled at the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia, hoping to deal more effectively with her Chinese suppliers. “Any transactions with my Chinese partners will be easier without a language barrier,” she says.


Derrick Silimina is a freelance journalist based in Lusaka. He focuses on Zambian agriculture and sustainability issues.
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