In 2018, the Uganda curriculum was revised and among the newly included subjects was teaching of Mandarin. However, three years down the road, the Chinese language teaching has been met with stiff challenges.
Rodney Rugyema, the administrator at the Confucius Institute, says that Covid-19 worsened an already bad situation. He says, for instance, language proficiency results expire after some time which calls for re-tooling.
“The fact that most of the teachers were under lockdown and had limited opportunities to practise the language means they lost momentum. Therefore, we had to design a short course to polish them to be able to start teaching again,” Rugyema says.
The language classes were in part affected by the ineffective internet connection, electric power challenges while other teachers had other worries of trying to make ends meet.
For classes that involved contact hours, budgetary issues squeezed hard as students had to take Covid-19 tests and subsequent mandatory two-week quarantines.
“We lost time and money because of Covid-19 because we had to ensure the safety of everyone,” Rugyema said.
For some learners, the pandemic meant spending more time in school as the group that was supposed to finish last year is yet to graduate. Of the 35 teachers that enrolled for the class of 2020, only 28 remain as seven have dropped off because of various issues.
But most of the teachers and students who were benefitting from scholarships have not taken them and Ms Xia Zhuoqiong, the Chinese director at the Confucius Institute, is confident of continuity when the “world is secure” with more vaccines.
For a new subject on the calendar, there were even greater challenges.
Mandarin is a language without an alphabet but just characters believed to be around 60,000. The language uses a tonal system - four-and-a-half tones are used, which implies that a single word such as “Ma” can mean mother, horse, hemp, or a reproach.
To deliver lessons, teachers adapt the Pinyin, which Romanises the Chinese characters based on their pronunciation.
According to Silas Oluka, one of the three Chinese language teachers at Teso College Aloet, since Mandarin is based on sounds, learners must focus greatly on listening.
“Pinyin can set you in motion but it is important to learn the characters,” he says.
Effectively, this can be done through audio books which offer a great deal of repetition. With Chinese TV channels also available, learners can get immersed in the Chinese culture.
But with most people locked in non-Chinese environments, he says, one can easily forget the characters as quickly as they learn them.
Learning would be effective with language labs which are a distant dream in Uganda.
According to Rugyema, plans to establish a language lab to be able to replicate the exact effect of the Chinese language was delayed by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Chinese reminds us of Kung-Fu movies. Jackie Chan, born Chan Kong-sang, an acrobatic martial artist, is the reason most young people fell in love with Chinese culture, especially movies from the 1980s onwards. His illustrious career in the film industry where his comedy, athleticism, acrobatics and dangerous stunts were revered by many, opened the doors for an interest.
Yet in part, learning the Chinese language has been affected by perceptions.
“Some of the parents we have come across still tie counterfeit goods to China so they do not want their children to learn the language,” Oluka says.
Samuel Okwi, the Sub-county chief of Kocheka in Bukedea District, has a son who is among the best four Mandarin learners at Teso College Aloet in Senior One class.
He facilitated his son with a laptop and internet connection to enable him attend online classes during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
“Languages are good,” Okwi says. “Now that Uganda is moving towards building strong bilateral ties with China, learning Mandarin is the way to go.”
The Chinese language tremendously owes its great strides to the economic relationship between Uganda and China.
Since 1962 when relations between Uganda and the People’s Republic of China started, trade between the two countries totalled more than $1b in 2017. China also owns about 20 per cent of Uganda’s debt, equivalent to about $1.6b.
Others find it sickening that Chinese people eat animals such as frogs.
Okwi says that people should look at Chinese as an opportunity to broaden job prospects in Chinese factories and tourism centres.
“There is a lot we eat here and no one eats elsewhere,” Okwi says.
“There are many Chinese industries opening up in Uganda and they need a sizeable number of skilled employees who can communicate properly,” he adds justifying why he is encouraging his son to embrace the language.
Despite many people seeing it as a life-changing opportunity, Zhuoqiong sees it as a gateway to Chinese growing influence in technology and economy.
She first came to Uganda in 2012 for a knowledge partnership and exchange programme between Makerere and Xiangtan under the framework of the Chinese-African Universities 20=20 Project. Under this initiative, the two universities would collaborate on issues involving staff training, academic exchanges and launching of knowledge partnerships. In 2018, she was appointed as the director of the Confucius Institute.
“When I came here, it changed my view about Uganda. It is a beautiful country with diverse cultures. Ever since I came here, I find the country beautiful every day,” she says.
But some economists question the motives of such funding. Speaking to the BBC in a 2018 interview, Fred Muhumuza said that China was positioning itself to take over Uganda’s resources.
But Rugyema dismisses such apprehension.
“Other languages are taught to our students, does that mean that those countries want to colonise us again?” he asked.
He instead explains that greater benefits await those ready to walk through the narrow gate.
“At the moment, this is like the Biblical narrow gate but it will give many people a better chance to compete globally.
According to Ethnologue, an annual reference publication, Mandarin Chinese is one of the most spoken languages across the world with 1.117 billion speakers. That is approximately 16 per cent of the world’s population. English has 1.132 billion total speakers. But with Uganda’s imports, especially, consumer goods, machinery, electronics and textiles, rising from $622m in 2013 to $985m in 2017, there are open doors for Uganda’s businessmen and students.
Ms Zhuoqiong is satisfied with the progress of their efforts. “One day we shall see many Ugandans using the Chinese language comfortably,” she says.
The Confucius Institute at Makerere University, established on December 19, 2014, coordinates the teaching of Chinese lessons to degree students at Makerere University offering Bachelor of Arts in Arts and Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences with the Chinese language as a subject. They also offer short courses on Chinese language and culture to beginners and those in business.
There has been rising interest in the number of Chinese language schools across the world, including in Africa. Since 2004, the number of Confucius Institutes in Africa has jumped from zero to 48.
Globally, Confucius Institutes are non-profit public institutions affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China whose stated aim is to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges.
In Uganda, the Confucius Institute uses Luyanzi Institute of Technology in Bweyogerere, Wakiso District for nine-month intensive courses for secondary school teachers to be able to deliver Chinese language lessons. The teacher-training programme is being paid for by the government in Beijing.
To become fluent and be able to teach a language within nine months is a huge undertaking, though Rodney Rugyema, the administrator at the Confucius Institute says the intensive nature of classes which are conducted from 8am until 10pm every weekday ensures that a workload of more than three years can be covered.
In 2019, the Ministry of Education introduced the Chinese language as a subject in secondary schools and the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) to enable some 60,000 students to acquire the language in the next four years.
Grace Baguma, the director of the National Curriculum Development Centre, says the decision was driven by ties between the countries.
A total of 35 pioneer schools enrolled for the course but by the time of the first sitting of O-Level examinations in 2022, at least four schools; Ntare School, Trinity College Kabale, China Friendship School Kanungu and Teso College Aloet, will offer candidates.
Ms Xia Zhuoqiong, the Chinese director at the Confucius Institute, explains that by the end of 2021, 50 schools will have obtained at least two teachers who can ably teach the language.
“We have requests from other interested schools that have identified teachers by themselves and we are helping those in that category with teaching materials,” Zhuoqiong says.
Teachers in such schools will be trained during the next enrollment expected in 2022.
African countries teaching Chinese
Burundi, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Benin, Angola, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.