A daily bulletin of news & opinion

13 February 2011

A degree from a western university has long been a priority for any would-be member of the Kenyan elite. Maybe not for much longer, though. Like so many other aspects of Kenyan life, China has become increasingly influential. The Chinese government has been piling renminbi into the construction of a Confucius Institute inside the walls of Nairobi University, Kenya’s most prestigious school of higher learning, doling out scholarships and travel allowances to students with even a passing curiosity about China, holding cultural festivals and funding the first Kenyan to seek a doctorate in Mandarin. It seems to be working.

“China is the next big thing in the world,” says Maureen Gacheri, 20, a student in International Studies and Mandarin. “Scholarships are guaranteed.”

Today there are nearly 200 students studying at the Institute, which opened in 2005. This year the Chinese government has paid for 40 students from the institute to travel to the northern Chinese city of Tianjin to study Mandarin. Next year there are plans to send 100.

China’s beneficence is strategic. At present Chinese oil companies are prospecting for oil in north-eastern Kenya. Chinese contractors have won bids for major infrastructure projects, including a superhighway out of the capital, Nairobi, and a new deepwater port expected to serve all of East Africa and the Horn. Chinese foremen pace the dusty lots of legions of new residential complexes edging the modest bungalows and leafy lanes of sleepier days.

The institute itself stands in contrast to the scruffy university. Behind shiny faux-wooden doors imported from China on the third floor of a nondescript cement block of a building on Nairobi University’s main campus are locked two shiny new language labs and a library of Chinese classics. Behind a sliding grill glass doors open onto a cavernous conference room bedecked with a rather Chinese combination of plush leather chairs, tinkly chandeliers and flat screen TVs.

Such trappings can only reassure Kenyan students whose first concern, in a country where unemployment is 40 per cent, is the bottom line. “The only thing they come to ask is, ‘how is the job market?’” says Susan Oluoch the institute’s Kenyan administrator, whose massive imported desk sits behind yet another set of Chinese doors.

The market, she tells them, is good. Last year some 20,000 Chinese people visited Kenya as tourists according to the Chinese Embassy. Construction projects across the country are desperate for local liaisons. And Kenyans have caught on quickly to the potential of China’s swelling consumer class.

Chinese investment in Africa has often been criticised for being self-interested, but students at Nairobi University see their exposure to China as a two-way street. “We will go there to gain experience and bring that technology and culture back,” said 21-year-old Carol Mwanzia.

China’s diplomatic corps might be less appreciative of the aspirations of law student Nyagah Macharia, a skinny lad of 19 sporting a natty three-piece suit and large, thick-rimmed spectacles. “Lawyers can’t have Chinese clients because they can’t understand them,” Macharia says. “If a construction worker is injured and he wants to sue the company, who is going to represent him?”


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