The Confucius Institute at the University of Rwanda (Remera Campus) is like a small Chinese community imported to Kigali.
Situated past the university’s College of Education main building, in neat simple structures set in the midst of tall trees, the institute teaches Chinese language and some aspects of Chinese culture to interested members of the public.
Set on 450 sq.km. of land, it hosts two classroom blocks, four office units, and a library that is more of a collection of some of the best writings from the country.
One of the book titles is; Common Knowledge About Chinese Culture, by an author whose identity I could not establish because the name is written in Chinese.
Next to it is a similar title; Common Knowledge About Chinese History, also by an author whose name is scribbled in Chinese.
I pick up a bright red book with the bold text: DICTIONARY, and Chinese inscriptions below it that I take to mean the same. Another inscription on it reads; “Kinyarwanda-English-Chinese, and in italics, Inkoranya y’Ikinyarwanda, Icyongereza n’Igishinwa.
The dictionary is jointly authored by Beatrice Yanzigiye, Kong Lingyuan, Cyprien Niyomugabo and Zeng Guangyu.
Currently, Yanzigiye holds the title of Local Director of the Confucius Institute (Remera Campus), while Kong is its Chinese Director.
There are over 6,000 titles in the physical library, most of them by some of the country’s renown philosophers dating back from the ages.
Teaching Chinese culture
At the basketball courts across the lawns, a group of about eighteen young men are taking part in rigorous Kung-fu drills with a Chinese instructor.
They shift between pairing up for a tango, taking instructions, and making physical drills.
“With regard to Chinese culture, I love playing Badminton. I also practice kung-fu because our instructor used to tell us that it’s one of the key aspects of the Chinese culture,” says Protais Uwiringiyimana between drills. “One of kung-fu’s benefits is to develop self-control instead of resorting immediately to force when you come across an unexpected problem.”
Uwiringiyimana hopes to come out of the institute with a whole package — speaking, writing and listening skills, as well Martial Arts, which was his main interest when he joined the institute.
For Delphine Mukamurara, it was the sheer prospect of speaking Chinese:
“We started with a teacher called Zen Guangyu, then followed by a lady called Meng Huanfen. After her came Tao Ran. The first teacher taught us the Chinese sounds and pinyin — a system of transcribing the Chinese sounds into the Latin alphabet. He also helped us to create short dialogues among learners,” she explains, adding; “At the moment we are being taught by Cheng Tao.”
But challenges abound, in that learning Chinese is only for the tough of will:
“We have good teachers. However, Chinese pronunciation is very difficult. Writing Chinese characters is also another big challenge,” says Grace Ingabire, a student at Gatsibo Community Model School.
All the classes are conducted in the evenings, from 6:00pm, to accommodate the schedules of both students and workers interested in the training.
“We have been introduced to Chinese culture through their language,” says Dr. Beatrice Yanzigiye, the institute’s local director. “This helps us communicate more effectively with the Chinese, either in class, at work, or other circumstances.”
Kong Lingyuan, the Chinese Director came to work at the institute in January 2011.
That time, his mother had just undergone knee replacement surgery, which put him in a dilemma — on the one hand, his mother needed to be taken care of, and on the other, the new job posting awaited him. After several days of consideration, he decided to ask his brother to look after their mother on his behalf.
“I reported for work in Kigali before the Chinese traditional New Year when all members of the family are expected to be together.”
Respect for other cultures important
After a relatively short time in this position, it came to Kong’s realisation that a few problems existed between the outgoing foreign director and her local counterpart.
“The former director didn’t know how to liaise effectively with the natives. He was only interested in teaching Chinese to the natives, but was not interested in Kinyarwanda.”
His view is that cross-cultural exchanges should be two-way: “The thing is, if you want other people to learn your culture, it is important to learn theirs first.”
He adds that the Confucius institutes around the world are frontiers for spreading appreciation for Chinese culture around the world.
Still, challenges abound; like the fact that the Chinese language is yet to be incorporated into the national teaching curriculum.
As Yanzigiye puts it; “This has adverse effects in the sense that Chinese language students do not have many opportunities to put their lessons into practice. For this reason, so far, very few people apply to go to China.”
Her wish is for more Chinese language teachers and teaching centers to be prioritized.
About the Confucius Institute
The Confucius Institute at the University of Rwanda was opened in June 2009, after friendly negotiations between the Chongqing Normal University (CQNU) from China, and the then Kigali Institute of Education, now University of Rwanda (UR).
It is a non-profit organization that is primarily charged with promoting Chinese language and culture, and enhancing cultural and academic exchanges between Rwanda and China.
Since 2009, it has offered Chinese language classes to both students and staff at the University.
Besides the main branch at the UR campus in Remera, the institute has affiliate language and martial arts classes in five different locations across the country — Inyange Girls’ School of Sciences, in Rulindo district, Northern Province; Gatsibo Model School (Eastern Province); Huye district in the Southern Province, Masaka Hospital in Kicukiro district and Umutara Polytechnic College.
Since the first Chinese class opened in April 2009, the number of students has been steadily rising — from the pioneer class of 209 students, the class boasted 2025 students by the last intake.