Uganda Begins Implementing Mandarin Chinese Classes in Schools

Kampala, UGANDA: Students at St. Denis' Secondary School in Ggaba, a suburb of the capital Kampala, study during the first lesson of the day 23 March 2007. The Ugandan government has recently launched the Universal Secondary Education (USE) programme which enables pupils at certain schools to attend the first year …
STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images

Uganda graduated its first set of Mandarin language teachers on Thursday, equipped to teach in secondary (high) schools and supported by the Chinese government.

Nationwide, 35 schools in five regions will receive the new teachers — most in the nation’s central region.

China’s state-run Xinhua news network reported that Beijing is investing heavily in the Confucius Institute at Makerere University, Uganda’s largest, meant to spread Chinese culture – as interpreted by the Chinese Communist Party – and make more Ugandans comfortable speaking Mandarin.

The Chinese government refers to Mandarin as “Chinese” or Putonghua (“the common tongue”), though millions of Chinese people speak a variety of languages including Cantonese, Mongolian, Manchu, Kazakh, and Uighur. The Communist Party has launched campaigns to eradicate the use of many minority languages, allegedly to help the job prospects of ethnic minorities.

Beijing is using the same excuse in Uganda.

“While many Chinese in Uganda can speak English, it is difficult to find a Ugandan who can speak Chinese well,” Zheng Zhuqiang, the Chinese ambassador to Uganda, told Xinhua. “In order to narrow this deficit and cater to Ugandans’ need to learning Chinese, the Chinese government supports both Chinese sides and their Ugandan partners in making this training program a success.”

Ugandan Minister for the Presidency Esther Mbayo reportedly said at the graduation that Mandarin had become increasingly important because of China’s investments in the country, according to the nation’s Monitor newspaper. Uganda is a key participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a plan to reconstruct the ancient Silk Road from Beijing to Lisbon. Chinese state media outlets have stated that the greater goal of the BRI is for China to “be responsible for the majority of infrastructure projects worldwide,” giving China control of all global trade. Heavily indebted African countries like Uganda have provided fertie ground for these projects, Uganda among them.

The teachers’ “graduation laid a solid foundation for Chinese language teaching in the east African country on a large scale, especially in secondary schools,” Xinhua reported, noting that the 33 teachers graduating will also promote Chinese culture in Uganda. The country hopes to eventually graduate 100 Mandarin teachers in the short term, spread throughout the country but focusing in areas where China has invested in infrastructure projects and established businesses.

“We have learnt a lot about Chinese culture through listening, reading, writing and speaking. We have covered all it takes for us to go and teach,” Jackeline Akello, one of the teachers, is quoted as saying.

Uganda is one of the countries expected to be connected to the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), a Chinese BRI project also prominently featuring Rwanda and Kenya. China has also taken to building major highways around the country, which studies show should be prohibitively expensive for the Ugandan economy, yet officials keep taking out loans to pay for the projects. One such highway, according to the outlet Quartz, cost a total of $450 million, “more than Uganda typically spends on its entire road network in a year.”

While China insists that these projects will enrich the countries hosting them, suggesting that they will bring jobs to the region, Beijing typically floods the countries with foreign workers from China, instead. Quartz found that Chinese contractors profited from 70 percent of the funding for the aforementioned road; four percent of the profits went to Ugandans.

This has not stopped Uganda from relying heavily on China. A 2017 Bank of Uganda study cited by the Monitor found that exports to China rose “from 17 percent in 2007 to more than 50 percent by 2015,” largely to China’s benefit.

“China’s model of growth thus generated huge demand for energy and other natural resources and resulted in upward pressure on global commodity prices,” the study suggested.

The Monitor notes that this has attracted not only Chinese contracting firms, but Chinese merchants, “and local traders are alarmed.” Uganda retail merchants have attempted to go on strike and protest the government to prevent the local market from getting flooded with cheap Chinese goods, many of which are made in slavery-like conditions. The government has largely ignored them, instead investing on protecting the workers the locals protested.

Chinese mining has also raised alarm in Uganda. In one notable instance last year, local officials caught Chinese workers illegally operating a sand mine. The ranking local government member in the area, Wakiso District chairperson Matia Lwanga Bwanika, approached the Chinese workers and told them to either prove that they were acting legally or stop mining. The Chinese workers physically assaulted Bwanika; observers filmed the exchange.

The incident recalled similar outbursts by Chinese government-approved workers in neighboring Kenya, where protesters have accused Belt and Road workers of imposing an “apartheid” system on them. In September, a Kenyan worker filmed his boss, Chinese businessman Liu Jiaqi, referring to all Kenyans as “monkeys.”

“I don’t belong to [sic] here. I don’t like here, like monkey people, I don’t like talk with them [sic], it smells bad, and poor, and foolish, and black. I don’t like them. Why not [like] the white people, like the American?” Liu railed.

Kenya deported Liu, but has still not intervened to stop the “apartheid” conditions at the SGR work sites, where witnesses say the Chinese ban Kenyans from eating in the same cafeterias, traveling to work sites in the same cars, and engaging in any skilled labor. Instruction manuals for the railway come strictly in Mandarin, ensuring that Kenya will forever rely on China to maintain and repair the railway. Only Chinese contractors have struck lucrative deals for the projects, paid for largely with Kenyan debt.

“Even as we talk about the [railway] and the racism and all that, it might be necessary for us as a country to change our work ethic,” Kenyan government spokesman Eric Kiraithe said in July, in response to the allegations of abuse and racism, outraging Kenyans who felt he had justified the abuse by labeling all Kenyans lazy.

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