By Derrick Silimina
As Africa’s population grows, many young people have trouble finding jobs as more than 15 million Africans aged 15-24 are unemployed, representing 13.5 percent of that age group, according to the policy-oriented Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
That percentage is more than twice the unemployment rate of Africans aged 25, showing that joblessness hits young people the hardest.
There is, however, a ray of hope for the unemployed: learning the Chinese language, and especially its main variant, Mandarin.
In Zambia, as elsewhere in Africa, learning Chinese is catching on as a way to escape unemployment. In this context, Zambia’s blossoming relationship with China for more than 50 years has boosted the economy considerably.
Today about 1,000 Chinese companies have a presence in Zambia, in sectors including manufacturing, retailing, agriculture, infrastructure, health and education.
However, a language barrier between Zambians and Chinese can make communication bumpy. While China makes efforts to train its people who have dealings in Zambia in the official local language, English, language barriers remain – particularly in parts of Zambia that use one of the country’s seven official vernacular languages.
The language barrier has created a need for Zambians who can communicate with suppliers and headquarters personnel in China. With the cooperation of Zambia’s education officials, China is promoting Mandarin language skills in Zambia through the Confucius Institute, a government-funded partnership between Chinese universities and universities in other countries.
For this reason, the Confucius Institute in Zambia enrols more than 80 university students per semester in its courses. It offers six levels of instruction in afternoon and evening classes.
This instruction responds to a clear demand, says Zhang Run, deputy director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia. “We receive calls every day from Chinese companies in Zambia looking for employees who can speak Chinese,” he says.
In addition to offering university-level courses, Zambia’s government has signed an agreement with the Confucius Institute to provide Chinese instruction at junior and senior secondary schools, a move that brings value to the country’s education system.
Many Zambian graduates have found jobs as interpreters in Chinese-owned companies. Others have been hired as human resources managers, secretaries and line executives liaising with headquarters.
“We have taken a route to help engage the Chinese enterprises operating in Zambia both public and private to link them with society through our organised annual job fair especially for young people that are looking for jobs,” Confucius Institute Acting Director Sande Ngalande said in an exclusive interview.
For instance, a Chinese firm with a factory in Lusaka’s industrial area – the Hongsen plant recycles plastic bottles into other wares such as dishes, cups and buckets.
“I am grateful to the authorities who made it possible for me to learn Chinese,” said Thandiwe Chaaba, a secretary at Hongsen Investment Ltd, who serves as liaison between her Chinese employers, local clients and general workers.
Zambian wholesalers and retailers – just like local employees of Chinese-owned companies – also find it useful to speak Chinese.
Memory Tembo, 30, is owner of a small retailing business in Lusaka. She has enrolled at the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia, hoping to deal more effectively with her Chinese suppliers.
“Any transactions with my Chinese partners will be easier without a language barrier,” Tembo said.