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African students seek opportunities at home by studying in China

By 2 July 2009 No Comment

Ten years ago, the African elite sent their children to study at universities in America or Europe to ensure their success and financial futures. Now, the target is slowly shifting from the West to the East. “My father’s colleague told him if I studied in China I would always have a job,” said Pitshou Ngoma, 29, whose father is an agricultural minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “So he sent me to Beijing.”

Africa’s wealth of oil and other mineral resources has long been of interest to China. China-Africa trade has increased by an average 30 percent a year this decade, reaching nearly $107 billion in 2008, according to The New York Times. In order to solidify China’s hold in the developing economies, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao went on a much publicized African tour early this year, visiting eight pivotal countries. As government ties deepen – bringing many Chinese companies to rural Africa to install roads, excavate minerals and construct schools, many African students are seeking to ride the Chinese tide to prosperity in their home countries.

While the numbers aren’t staggering – 3,737 African students were studying in China in 2007, according to China Daily – they are increasing rapidly. In 2008, the government doubled the number of scholarships it offered African students from 2,000 to 4,000, according to the Ministry of Education. The increased presence of Chinese government and business ventures in Africa has caught the attention of many young people who see it as an opportunity.

On a recent afternoon this reporter went to the Beijing Language and Culture University campus to seek out African students to hear how they ended up in China. Roland Biyogo, 26, was one of the just 21 successful candidates out of the more than 1,000 students from Equatorial Guinea to take a qualifying exam to study in China. “Recently there are a lot of Chinese businesses in my country,” said Biyogo. “They are the ones doing the construction like highways, sanitation systems… even the doctors are Chinese.”

Most African students in Beijing view their Chinese sojourn as a guarantee for job security back in their home countries. Some, like Obeng Kwasi, 34, from Ghana, are staying in China for only a year, just enough time to learn Mandarin Chinese. On return to their home countries, they hope to find jobs as translators for Chinese businessmen or to provide them a bonus skill in construction-related careers in which they are coming in increasing contact with Chinese. “We have many Chinese companies in Ghana,” said Kwasi. “So I was thinking, Why not come and learn Chinese?”

Others, like Americo Malaquias, 23, from Angola, come to China to learn technical skills like electrical engineering that they can apply to improving the infrastructure in their home countries. “They have the technology that Africa needs,” he said. “When we study here we can go do the work in our own country.” Though African students studying at Beijing Language and Culture University have common goals from their Chinese educations, sometimes finding a common language with other Africans is tricky.

“I don’t speak English so I prefer Africans to talk to me in Chinese,” said Adan Ndong, 22, from Equatorial Guinea. “Sometimes it is the only language we have in common.”

In order to foster more communication many Africans pick up a few other languages in addition to Chinese. Malaquias learned English and Spanish so that he can hang out with other Africans that don’t speak his native Portuguese. And outside the African community, like all travelers, African students have had an interesting time navigating the new social terrain that China presents. “The way they treat people is very different,” said Ndong, noting the differences between teaching styles. “In my country, students are free. Here, the students act like they’re in military school – they do exactly what the teacher says.”

Experience outside of the classroom has brought its own share of lessons as well. “In my country we kiss our friends in greeting,” said Ndong. “But in China there are only romantic kisses.” This hasn’t stopped him from getting close to his Chinese classmates – he has been dating a Chinese young woman for the past six months. “She was thinking immediately about marriage,” said Ndong. “In my country we need to wait five to ten years before marrying.” But he said this didn’t scare him because he had already been “warned about the Chinese girls.”

Not all Chinese have greeted the African students with such open arms. “There are some that, for whatever reason, are racist,” said Obeng Kwasi, 34, from Ghana. “They act like they have met someone who is inferior to them.” While racism may play a part, many attribute the strained reaction they provoke to the novelty of a black face in Asia, particularly among the elderly.“Sometimes they look at us like we just came out of the forest,” said Pitshou Ngoma, 29, from Congo, “like one of those documentaries about monkeys.”

The Chinese aren’t the only ones whose views have been challenged. Ndong admits that he had a negative view of Chinese before he came. Before, in his home country, he had only met brusque businessmen who had reputations for driving their local workers very hard. “In my country they aren’t nice,” he said. “Here, they are. They really explain a lot to me.”

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