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Honored on behalf of 10,000 others

Updated: 2014-02-14 09:59
By China Daily ( China Daily Africa)

 Honored on behalf of 10,000 others

Students perform at the opening ceremony of the Confucius Institute at the University of Dar es Salaam. Photos provided to China Daily

Mandarin teacher wins accolades in Cameroon, Tanzania and far beyond

It is said that Confucius, the great teacher, had more than 3,000 students in China, a remarkable achievement for those days. More than two millennia later, the ancient sage is still proving to be the main inspiration for a Chinese teacher to teach Chinese language courses to more than 3,000 students in Cameroon and Tanzania.

The 10 teaching centers affiliated to the Confucius Institute at the University of Yaounde II in Cameroon offer courses ranging from elementary Chinese to language lessons for business purposes. Most of the students are from universities, though it is not uncommon to see middle and primary school students at the center.

The center follows the "One institute, multiple teaching centers" model, pioneered by Zhang Xiaozhen, the former director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Yaounde II.

Zhang was recently recognized as one of the "People of the Year" for her efforts in disseminating of Chinese culture at the 2013 Brilliance of China event. Head of the Buddha's Light International Association Hsing Yun and the film star Jackie Chan were among other recipients of the honor.

"I am happy to receive the honor on behalf of the over 10,000 teachers and volunteers teaching Chinese overseas." Zhang says. "Many of them are working just as diligently as I am."

Zhang says teaching Chinese in Africa has been a tough experience. Her relationship with the continent began in 2007 when she was selected by her alma mater, Zhejiang Normal University, to be the Chinese director of the first Confucius Institute in Cameroon.

"We had to live in houses covered with iron sheets, old beds and broken mattresses. There were also frequent power outages," Zhang says adding that it was tough to stay calm and composed.

"Being an optimist by nature helped, and soon I was able to adjust to the surroundings and live with the difficulties."

Zhang had only one colleague, and between them they were responsible for almost everything in the early days. "Besides preparing the instruction materials and syllabus, we also had to pass out flyers detailing the activities at the center, introduce ourselves to as many people on the street as possible and also make local friends.

However, the biggest challenge was how to make the difficult Chinese language lessons interesting for African students, she says.

"We realized that teaching vocabulary and grammar alone would not be enough to attracted students," she says.

Since most of the Africans love music, Zhang decided to teach the language through Chinese songs, and various other cultural activities like kung fu, folk arts and Chinese food.

Those efforts seem to have more than paid off, gauging by the growing number of centers offering Chinese classes in Cameroon.

One of the centers gives students a Chinese language education degree from the University of Maroua in northern Cameroon, the first of its kind in Central Africa, Zhang says.

Many of her students have already graduated from college and are teaching Chinese in local schools, while others have come to China for higher education.

"One of my students, Romeo, even got married to a Chinese girl last year, and sent me their wedding photos. He has got a PhD degree from East China Normal University," Zhang says

In 2010, Zhang finished her term in Cameroon, and returned to China. The Cameroon government awarded her the Presidential Knight Medal in 2011 for her contribution to Cameroon-China cultural ties.

However, when the Confucius Institute at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania was established in January last year, no one expected Zhang to return to Africa to be the trailblazer for the newly born Confucius Institute for the second time.

This time, she even brought her husband along.

"I take back my complaints," says Cheng Anxin, Zhang's husband, "Her work is so meaningful and I am happy to support her."

She has been able to easily blend in with the African students and make friends, so much so that many African students regard her as their "Chinese mother".

"She has all the qualities of a mother," says Frederick Sumaye, the former prime minister of Tanzania. "She's caring, she really looks after them, and she's very friendly to the young people she's staying with."

However, as a mother, Zhang feels guilty regarding her own daughter. "I have left my own daughter at home, and can see her only once a year. I always think that I owe her the most."

But fortunately her daughter has chosen to support her and plans to be a teacher.

"That's what prompted me to return to Africa for the second time," Zhang says.

At present, Zhang and her colleagues have organized 13 cultural activities of various kinds, such as the preliminaries of the Chinese Bridge Competition for College Students and Chinese Day. The events have attracted more than 20,000 participants and have been welcomed by Tanzanians.

"Zhang is a very charming Chinese lady," says Asha-Rose Migiro, the former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations and a native of Tanzania. "She can blend very easily with the people here and teach us the Chinese language and various other aspects of Chinese culture."

Xing Yi contributed to this story.

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