Chen Yuanmeng and his students (ZHOU KELI)
In a classroom for the School of Foreign Languages at the Communication University of China, a silver-haired academic in a red sweater was a lesson in concentration as he wrote a stream of Swahili words carefully on the blackboard.
A senior Swahili teacher at the university, both in age and skill, Chen Yuanmeng, aged 76, has taught the language for over 50 years. In the process, he has seen major changes in the relationship between China and African countries and he stresses the importance of promoting communication via the spoken words at every opportunity.
"Swahili is our golden key to understanding Africa," said Chen. "We can only begin to understand each other when we speak the same language."
Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages in East Africa, used in countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda and Mozambique. However, in China, people had little understanding of the language until the 1960s, when some selected universities in China established Swahili as a language major to promote exchanges and cooperation between China and Africa.
In 1961, the 19-year-old Chen began to study Swahili in a small training class at Beijing Foreign Studies University. After graduation, he was designated to teach Swahili at the Communication University of China, six years after the course was established at the university. It was the first initiative of its kind in China.
"At that time, we didn't even have textbooks," Chen recalled. "We could only depend on radio and newspapers as learning materials." To improve his teaching, Chen asked friends in Tanzania to record the local radio programs and then send the tapes back to him so that the students could have authentic voice materials to listen to.
However, after the first group of his students graduated, the course was stopped because of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). In the following 25 years, Chen tried valiantly to resume the Swahili course, but to no avail. In December 1986, out of sheer frustration, he wrote on behalf of his department to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, among others, asking for assistance. Thanks to his unremitting efforts, in 1990, the language major course was finally resumed. In 2000, enrollment was further expanded to all college entrance examination candidates.
In the years during which his course was dropped, Chen kept busy by editing textbooks such as Swahili Advanced Reading and translating several Swahili books into Chinese, including African Children's Stories.
Recalling the tough learning conditions back at that time, Hu Bo, a former student of Chen who graduated in 2004, said that when he attended school in the early 2000s, there were limited copies of the Swahili-Chinese dictionary across the country. "There were 24 students in my class. Professor Chen bought a dictionary for each one of us. The dictionary was a treasured item for us in those days," said Hu.
For decades, the generations of students taught by Chen have all used their Swahili skills in a wide range of professions to strengthen Sino-African exchanges. These include foreign affairs, media, teaching, medicine and economics. One of Chen's students, Li Kunruonan, has followed in his footsteps to become a teacher at the Communication University of China after graduation in 2005.
"I chose to become a Swahili teacher because I think there are still many Chinese people who want to know about Africa," said Li. "I want to help more people learn about the real Africa."
Also working as a translator, Li has been translating Swahili novels into Chinese. "I want to help Chinese people in Africa learn Swahili and more about the African culture, and also help African people learn some Chinese and understand more about China," said Li.
Han Mei, a graduate from the early 1990s, has been working as a reporter at the West African Center of China Radio International, telling the Chinese story to African people.
Han and her classmate Chen Lianying and other alumni also translated A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era, a 36-episode light comedy about a modern Chinese couple, into Swahili. The TV series conveys universal themes of love and kindness that resonate well with African audiences. The show has been a big hit since it was first introduced to Tanzania and Kenya in 2011.
Like many of his alumni, Hu went to Africa after graduation. After working in several different African countries, he built his own fertilizer import and export business in Africa.
Hu believes that with the deepening development of China-Africa exchanges and cooperation, and the increasingly closer exchanges, especially under the strategy of the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese who can speak Swahili are urgently needed. "Only through better communication can the friendship bond between China and Africa become strengthened," he said.
Chen said that although some Chinese people have less knowledge about Africa, in reality, there is much to be positive regarding the continent, and through language, an important window for strengthening mutual understanding is opened.
"Swahili is my lifelong career," Chen said, while talking about the future. "In the past, the bridge of China-Africa friendship was built and strengthened by my generation. In the future, I hope that more young people will continue to contribute [in this area]." He believes that those with ability to speak Swahili can continue to play a vital role in cross-cultural communication between China and Africa.
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