On a sticky afternoon in a dark classroom at the Confucius Institute in Dakar, first-year students repeat after their teacher in Mandarin: “Where is the canteen?”
Why Mandarin is conquering Africa
The ensuing wall of sound pervades the classroom in the Senegalese capital, which is equipped with Chinese books, posters and a whiteboard covered in Chinese characters.
Their teacher, Koumakh Bakhoum, spent three years at Dalian University in China’s Liaoning province mastering Mandarin before returning home in 2016 to teach at the institute.
Bakhoum says today’s class is all about visiting a university canteen. “All of them have to be able to speak this sentence, and we have to repeat it many times,” he says.
The institute, on the grounds of Cheikh Anta Diop University, was funded by the Chinese government at a cost of $2.5 million and opened in 2016. It hosts 500 students with facilities including lecture halls, a multimedia hall, an amphitheater and a library.
Beijing also pays for the running costs, including salaries for 12 staff members, while all classes are subsidized.
The Confucius Institute’s director, Asian history professor Mamadou Fall, says Senegal is a good investment choice for China because it is one of the most prosperous and stable democratic states in West Africa, and the gateway to French-speaking Africa.
China is Africa’s most important economic partner, according to research released by McKinsey last year, but increasingly it is also creating a large cultural footprint across the world’s fastest-growing continent.
A US retreat under President Donald Trump has also given China an even greater opportunity to seize the soft-power lead in Africa, especially since Trump made an off-the-cuff comment in January describing African nations as “shithole countries.”
Fall complains that his students nowadays find it impossible to get visas to study in Europe or the US. The Chinese government, on the other hand, has eased visa requirements for Senegalese students, and each year it funds scholarships for 50 of the best students from the Confucius Institute to study Mandarin at Chinese universities.
Indeed, the number of African students in China has soared, according to Victoria Breeze at Michigan State University, who has analyzed enrollment data from China’s Ministry of Education.
Evidence suggests ambitious young Africans are increasingly inclined to take up Mandarin as a way to land a dream a job in China or benefit from China’s growing influence on the continent.
“There’s a momentum building for Chinese,” Fall says. And with more than 50 Confucius Institutes across the continent, there are also signs that Mandarin is beginning to challenge the ubiquity of European colonial languages in African countries.
El Abdoulaye Dieye, 25, is one of the students in Bakhoum’s class. He grew up in Dakar and decided to study Mandarin because “the Chinese are investing a lot in Senegal, and the biggest roads and buildings in Senegal were built by the Chinese.”
Dieye says he hopes his Mandarin studies will help him find work with a Chinese company, and he would also like to be a cultural mediator between the Chinese and Senegalese people.
The mushrooming of Confucius Institutes around the world has not been universally welcomed. Concerns have been expressed in the United States, for example, that the institutes are being used to spread Chinese propaganda. In March, lawmakers presented a draft bill in the US Congress that would require the institutes to register as foreign agents.
Earlier this month, the state government of New South Wales in Australia said it was “reviewing” a Confucius Institute program teaching Mandarin to schoolchildren amid concern it was espousing Chinese ideology.
Eric Olander, co-host of the weekly China in Africa podcast, tells Inkstone that the institutes are less controversial in African countries than in the West.
“In Africa, the narrative is very different,” he says. “Public perception of China is far more positive overall, according to a number of different surveys, and as the continent's largest trading partner, a growing number of people see the clear linkages between China and their own economic welfare.”
China has indeed been accused of cultivating quasi-colonial relations with African nations – including Senegal. Fall insists the Chinese approach differs from that of former colonial rulers in Africa, including that of France in Senegal.
“This kind of cooperation is a win-win because it’s not cooperation that can be imposed by rules and regulations… you retain your freedom. It’s not based on domination. What you have with Chinese cooperation is the possibility to remain yourself, keeping your own heritage, conducting your own policies,” he says.
The languages of former colonial powers – such as English, French and Portuguese – may now be under threat, Fall says, arguing that in 50 years the lingua franca in Africa may well be Chinese.
“Chinese language is gaining momentum. If things keep going this way, I think very soon Chinese will be in a good position vis-à-vis a language like French,” Fall says.
There has been declining interest in French – the language of Senegal’s former colonial ruler – which has traditionally been less popular than English as a foreign language to study in Africa, he adds.
Additional reporting by Juliana Liu