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China in Africa: The Real Story

Learning Chinese in Zambia

Deborah Brautigam

A growing number of students are producing really first rate field research on China in Africa. I recently read the M.A. thesis of Arwen Hoogenbosch, who is finishing his M.A. in Leiden. His thesis, "Made-in-China”: Chinese as a commodity and a socioeconomic resource in Chinese language schools in Zambia" makes fascinating reading.

Arwen spent several months doing "participant observation", enrolled in a Chinese language school in Zambia (which has both a Confucius Institute and a private-for-profit Chinese language school). He got to know his fellow students, and reports on their varied goals and hopes for learning Chinese. 

It's vividly written and full of interesting findings. For example, the story of "William":
... For most of his life, William and his siblings grew up on a Chinese operated farm. The Chinese farmer invested in the children and paid their tuition. The farmer also sent William to the Confucius Institute to learn Chinese. The Chinese employer can be seen as the family’s patron, which improved the cultural capital of the children. The Chinese employer also advised William to work at a Chinese restaurant to improve his Chinese. William’s social capital translated into cultural capital, by living with the Chinese farmer.
This kind of relationship is not what one would expect from watching "When China Met Africa" (which features a rather less sensitive farmer) and it reinforces a point we can't make too often: there is not one "China" in "Africa".

Then there is "Raymond":
In his work as a policeman he noticed that Chinese people in Zambia were increasingly coming into contact with law enforcement: “Often when they come to the office they cannot defend themselves because they do not speak English, but they have the right to hear what they have done wrong in a language they understand”. When he proposed to learn Chinese, his boss agreed and told him he could do a course in Chinese language during office hours.
Listening this deeply, and sharing these stories online, makes this a valuable piece of work. Thanks, Arwen.

Arwen's analysis of the motives for Zambians to study Chinese is thoughtful. Some thought it would advance their job prospects, although Arwen writes: "it appears that Chinese companies prefer Chinese skilled employees." I think there is a lot more potential for Africans who speak Chinese than perhaps Arwen does. I'm current in Ethiopia and seeing some fascinating examples of Chinese companies employing Ethiopians at a high management level. One firm's production manager is Ethiopian -- he runs the place (the Chinese owner also has factories in Somalia, Sudan, Mali, and several other African countries). More on that in a later blog post.