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School of life

Updated: 2013-06-14 07:49
By Li Aoxue ( China Daily)

School of life

Zhao Lei and his supervisor professor F.E.M.K. Senkoro. Zhao says the laid-back lifestyle of Tanzanians is to be appreciated. Provided to China Daily

He's the youngest lecturer of Swahili in China, a language he mastered while living in Tanzania, but for Zhao Lei the experience was more than academic

At just 28, Zhao Lei is remarkably young for his position as a lecturer at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), one of most prestigious universities in foreign language education in China.

Zhao is, in fact, the youngest Swahili lecturer in China at an institution with a long history in the subject. BFSU was the first university in China to offer Swahili as a major in 1961.

Reaching this stage in his career has naturally been a learning experience for the academic, but not just in languages. Zhao spent two years living in Tanzania and feels he learnt a lot about life during that period.

"When I first arrived in Tanzania, people were surprised to see a Chinese person who could speak their language," Zhao says.

"I told them that China believes Swahili is important to connect with Africa and that BFSU set up a course in the language even before Tanzania gained its independence."

After the initial culture shock and getting used to the curiosity of local people, Zhao says he began to appreciate the Tanzanian way of life.

"Unlike African people, the Chinese are busy almost every minute, and in the end when they look back, some of them do not even know what they were busy for," he says.

While living standards appeared lower in Tanzania than in China, he says people seemed more optimistic.

"Sometimes I quite admire the way that African people live. Their living conditions are not that advanced, but that never becomes a stumbling block to enjoying life," he says.

There were times when the water or electricity supply would fail, but people did not become stressed as they might in China, he adds. Instead, they would just buy some juice and sit talking with friends.

Zhao was also impressed by the natural beauty of Tanzania.

"Unlike modern Chinese cities with high-rise buildings, traffic jams and air pollution, Tanzania has blue skies, beautiful lakes, imposing canyons and all kinds of wildlife parks," he says.

"I must say that apart from pyramids, Tanzania offers every tourist attraction that you could find anywhere else in the world."

When the BFSU course ended, most of Zhao's classmates moved to other fields, but Zhao, determined to become a lecturer in Swahili, moved to Tanzania to improve his language skills.

"I'm the type of person who looks for a down-to-earth life," he says. "By working for a university I can have a stable life and career, and have more free time.

"Most students from BFSU might go to Tanzania for a short period like 10 months to study, but I was aiming to become an academic in the subject."

Zhao spent two years as a postgraduate student at the University of Dar es Salaam, through a program organized by the Chinese Scholarship Council, researching comparisons between Chinese and Swahili proverbs.

"There are actually some similarities between Chinese and Swahili proverbs as both languages advocate people to be honest, hard working, tolerant and cautious," he says.

"I chose Swahili proverbs as my research area because oral Swahili is more developed than the written language, so it's meaningful to study the spoken language."

When Zhao graduated, opportunities for graduates in Swahili were few - only a third found jobs that were relevant to their study. Today that picture has changed, he says, with academics, businesses and government bodies increasingly on the look out for speakers of Swahili, which is one of five working languages used by the African Union, alongside English, Arabic, Portuguese and French.

"Only when a researcher understands the language can he or she understand their literature and culture thoroughly," he says.

For Zhao, speaking Swahili helped him integrate into Tanzanian society during his stay there.

"People felt more at ease and closer to me because I spoke Swahili with them," he says. "And because of my field of study I could even use Swahili proverbs when I was trying to express my thoughts."

Zhao relates the experience to something Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, once said.

"He said when you communicate with others in a language they understand you touch the other's brain, but when you communicate with someone in their mother tongue, you touch that person's soul," he says.

"This is why it's important that we master a foreign language."

But despite the common language, living in Tanzania took some getting used to.

"People in Tanzania have a slow pace in their work and life, and it made me feel uncomfortable because I was used to the fast pace if living in China," Zhao says. "But when I got to understand them, I started learning how to enjoy life by taking things slower too."

Aside from his research at the university, Zhao volunteered to teach Chinese to local merchants.

"There are an increasing number of people coming from China to buy wood products in Tanzania, and some of the merchants wanted to learn Chinese in order to be able to speak with them," he says.

According to Zhao, most Tanzanians are familiar with China, due to Tazara Railway, built by China in the 1970s, and the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"China and Tanzania have been friends for years, and when I walked down the street friendly old men would even say hello to me in Chinese," says Zhao.


(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/14/2013 page28)

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