By Gamuchirai Masiyiwa
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — For as long as she can remember, Blessing wanted to be a lawyer.
In her first year at the University of Zimbabwe, she considered taking French classes.
While that language is widely spoken across sub-Saharan Africa, Blessing, 28, says she was advised that it made more sense to study Mandarin. Many Chinese people and Chinese-owned businesses have settled in Zimbabwe in recent years.
Mastering Mandarin turned out to be useful, says Blessing, who requested that only her first name be used, because she fears speaking to the press might spoil her chances to find a new job.
After completing her degree in 2014, she received a scholarship from the Confucius Institute at the University of Zimbabwe to continue to study the language at a university in China for a year. When she returned home, it took her less than a month to find a job as an interpreter with a Chinese-owned company that sells mining equipment in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. She interprets conversations between English-, Mandarin- and Shona-speaking employees. The ancestry of Zimbabwe’s Shona people is rooted in eastern Zimbabwe and areas that now form that country’s neighbors. The Shona speak a language of the same name.
Some of her friends who studied other things and graduated the same year are still unemployed, she says.
With the influx of Chinese nationals and businesses comes a myriad of employment opportunities for Zimbabweans. Learning Mandarin is increasingly popular among university students and young professionals in Zimbabwe. While some say a command of the language has enabled them to find jobs quickly, experts question the role of Chinese language and culture in Zimbabwe’s economic development.
Tawanda Zimhindo teaches Mandarin at the University of Zimbabwe’s Confucius Institute. Young professionals are earning income by teaching the language.Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Relations between China and Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, date back to the early 1960s. Since then, China-Zimbabwe relations have been rooted in trade and investments. China has become Zimbabwe’s fourth-largest trading partner and its second-largest importer.
Economic ties between the two countries are still at play, despite Zimbabwe’s economy having been in freefall for years. In 2012, formal-sector unemployment stood at 94 percent, according to the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations. While national unemployment data remains widely debated by experts, some young Zimbabweans say they are finding jobs within Chinese-owned businesses.
But before they are hired, Zimbabweans are equipping themselves with skills required for these jobs. For more than 10 years, the Confucius Institute has been offering degrees, courses and resources to help people learn Chinese language and culture, says Herbert Mushangwe, the institute’s director.
“It does not require any background of Chinese, because you start learning it from scratch,” Mushangwe says of lessons at the institute. In addition to bachelor’s degrees, the institute offers a six-level language course, from beginner to advanced. Students can opt out at any level, but they must be proficient in a set number of words at each level to receive a certificate, Mushangwe says. By the final level, which lasts about 180 hours, students are required to know 5,000 Mandarin words, he explains.
China’s government and some of its scholars donate textbooks for use at the institute, Mushangwe says. Faculty members at the institute have also created a Shona-Mandarin dictionary to help the students. Upon completion of the course, students often work as translators and teachers in their communities, he says.
There are more than 2,000 graduates, Mushangwe adds. But when the institute opened in 2007, very few people had an interest in learning Mandarin, because they thought the language was too difficult, he says. The institute, funded by China’s Ministry of Education, has branches all over the world.
“The centers are a way of ensuring that other people understand their language and their culture, because it is difficult to understand their philosophy if you do not understand their culture,” he says.
Osborn Kudyanyemba, an undergraduate student at the institute, says he decided to major in Mandarin because job prospects for those who can speak the language are promising.
“One of my friends told me that there are many job opportunities locally and abroad when you study Chinese,” he says. “And I have also received encouragement from my family.”
Naume Mudzonga, a graduate of the institute who received her bachelor’s degree in 2014, says she majored in Mandarin and currently makes a living from her knowledge of the language.
“It did not take me two months to get a job after completing my studies, and in 2015 I started conducting my own classes where I teach Chinese,” she says.
Mudzonga teaches a class of 15 students and charges each a monthly fee of $100.
But relying on the language is not a sustainable way to earn income, because the stricken economy means that pay rates for interpreters and translators are constantly changing, Blessing says.
“You need to have another professional expertise other than the language,” she says, adding that she’d recently applied for a new job in which she hopes for a stable income.
Some local experts say learning Mandarin fosters cross-cultural communication alongside employment.
“When Chinese come to Zimbabwe, they usually have their own interpreter, so having locals who understand the language and culture is a step forward in terms of understanding how the Chinese work,” says Naome Chakanya, an economist and senior researcher at the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe.
Others disagree. Zimbabwe’s economic development is becoming increasingly reliant on Chinese culture and language, says Godfrey Kanyenze, director of the same organization.
“We are desperate and in a vulnerable situation where you are forced by circumstance to learn their own language in order to get employment in your own country,” he says. “In essence it shows the role of economic might and imperial interests.”
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona to English.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Tawanda Zimhindo’s name. Global Press Journal regrets this error.
This article was originally published on Global Press Journal.