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Q&A With African Educators Studying in China: What Went Well and What Could’ve Been Better

In the fall of 2010, East China Normal University launched the International Master of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy program co-sponsored by UNESCO and China’s Ministry of Commerce. The one-year master program endorsed by China’s Ministry of Education taught participants via lectures and seminars educational development skills such as policy research and implementation, faculty training, holistic curriculum design, and many more.  30 African students obtained a scholarship from China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), and 21 African students received a scholarship from UNESCO/Great Wall. 

Besides the educational portion, students were also required to complete a Mandarin foreign language course. 

I was fortunate to have been able to meet with 4 out of the 32 participants from Africa to discuss their year-long stay in China. The interviewees were: Mr. Duke Josephat Mayieka Kinanga from Kenya, Mrs. Rita Mkhomaanthu from Malawi, Mr. Sesay Philip Morie from Sierra Leone and Mr. Clement Ntiamoah-Asare from Ghana.

The interview was divided into two sections: one that focused on their educational experience in China pursuing the Master’s program and observations of the Chinese educational style and another focused on their cultural experience in China. The following is a condensed transcript of that discussion: 

G SERENA WANG: Hi, everyone! Thank you so much for being here; please introduce yourself. 

CLEMENT NTIAMOAH-ASARE: Hello! I am Clement from the Ashanti region in Ghana, and I have been a teacher for the past twenty years, specifically health and fiscal education. I am also an assistant director at Ghana’s educational service department. I am very passionate about health education and love to share my research with my community members to better understand diseases and hygiene. 

RITA MKHOMAANTHU: Hi, I am Rita from Malawi. I have been teaching for ten years, and I also assist in organizing educational events in my area. I am a firm believer in education through engaging, practical work. 

SESAY PHILIP MORIE: I am Phillip, I’m from Sierra Leone, I am Chief Clerk at the Joint Presidential Guard Force, while I was in the military I taught children in military schools. I have a great passion for bringing up children as the environment in which they are nurtured in is extremely important in the formation of their character and perspectives of the world. 

DUKE JOSEPHAT MAYIEKA: I am Duke, I’m from Kenya, and I have been a teacher and lecturer for over 20 years, and I am also a trained Christian counselor. I love the language Swahili and teach it during my free time. 

SERENA: What was your favorite part of the Master’s program? 

CLEMENT: I actually have two! My first one was the cultural presentation that my Ghanaian friend and I had to present, and the second one was going to old Shanghai. There was an assignment given which required us to make a short presentation regarding our country’s culture, and it was very interesting to learn about other cultures as well as presenting my own. I had a lot of fun presenting my country’s signature foods and traditions. 

My second one was going to old Shanghai; I loved the decorations that were put up for the celebration of China’s 70 year anniversary. The night fireworks were even better! It was a really important moment as I got to see what China was all about. We were supposed to return, but then COVID-19 arrived, and we had to remain on our campus. 

RITA: I agree, I loved the 70-year celebrations that were held on Shanghai Normal University’s main campus, the fireworks were epic. 

DUKE: My favorite part was definitely visiting the Confucius festival in Shandong. I was able to gain an in-depth understanding of the foundation of Chinese education and Confucius’s philosophy. Even though the journey was four hours long, the experience was completely worth it. 

“I’ve noticed that Chinese people are not used to people of color when we were on the metro people would not sit next to us, I recognize that this is not because Chinese people are ill-willed but because Chinese people just aren’t comfortable being around people of color because there aren’t that many in China.”

Clement Ntiamoah-Asare

SERENA: What was the most challenging part?

DUKE: The most challenging part was dealing with the complications of Covid19. (Participants of the program were on lockdown on campus from January to the end of June.) When everyone first got introduced to the virus, it was very mysterious; no one really knew how dangerous it was. We were not allowed to leave our dormitory, and I could not sleep, I felt very homesick and claustrophobic because there did not seem to be an end to this lockdown. We didn’t even step into the hallway to greet each other as we were afraid of getting the virus. 

SERENA: I’m really sorry you had to go through that….what about now? Has the situation gotten better in terms of your restrictions on traveling and other freedoms? 

CLEMENT: The situation has improved, and the restrictions have been lessened. There is a partial lockdown: students cannot leave campus after 10 PM, and we need to ask permission a day before to leave the campus. This was not a problem as they rarely reject requests; it all depends on which program the participant is from. However, we still cannot spend the night outside of the campus, leave Shanghai, or have visitors at the entrance. 

DUKE: Yes, it actually depends on the program; my sister, our friends, and I wanted to leave campus, but since we were in a large group, we were not allowed to. But that was not that important of a trip. 

SERENA: What is the educational environment in your home country like, and what do you think are its weaknesses and strengths? 

CLEMENT: The educational system in Ghana is quite good. There are qualified teachers, and the system is structured in a way that teachers with less than a Master’s degree cannot obtain higher positions in their workplace. Because of this, there are teachers with Master’s degrees, even in the most basic schools. The Ghanaian educational system works like this: every student chooses four schools prior to sitting a national exam. If their results are not competitive enough for their top choice school, they will be placed in a school that is at their academic level. Schools are ranked from A to D, rank A being the best schools. Some children do not qualify for any of their chosen schools and will be placed in lower-ranking schools. Most parents want their kids to attend boarding schools as they obtain the best facilities, and since they are free, parents don’t have to worry about finding accommodation for their kids. 

However, Ghanaian schools lack teaching material; the world is going digital now, and schools in Ghana do not have the advanced technology to keep up. Chinese classrooms are completely digital, but in Ghana, they still use blackboards. There used to be a lot of elitism in the educational system as well, which is why the Ghanaian government introduced standardized tests to make the system fairer. Now, the system is more meritocratic, and students in lower-income families can obtain influential jobs. 

PHILIP: In Sierra Leone, it’s different, all districts have schools and the most qualified teachers are in the city as there are more resources in the city. Teachers in villages learn through a concept called “distance learning,” where they are trained for two weeks, obtain certification and then have to continuously develop their teaching skills for another three years to become officially qualified as a teacher. For a little bit of context, there was a war that followed the Ebola pandemic, which destroyed educators of high levels, so right now, we are at a grooming stage for important educators. 

The biggest problems in the educational system in Sierra Leone are the gap between the rural and urban quality of learning and exclusion in education. Students have to be nominated by important authority figures to be enrolled in a competitive school. There are educational policies that prioritize leaders’ children to go to the best schools, causing those of the same class to stay together. Elite schools are often training places for politicians, doctors, lawyers, and many influential jobs, which unfortunately means that a lot of talented, intelligent, and able students miss out on opportunities because of the circumstances they were born in. 

RITA: In Malawi, the rural and urban problem is the same: teachers are inadequate in rural areas, and there is a lack of employment and educational opportunities there. However, the allocation of students is different from that of other countries in Africa; students do not get to choose schools but are allocated to schools based on their grades. The general educational environment in Malawi is good, but not all teachers are committed to their work, and there is a lot of congestion, especially in rural primary schools and universities. Malawi needs more space and resources to accommodate all students to ensure that no one misses out on good quality education. 

DUKE: In my opinion, the issues are similar across all educational systems in Africa. Urban schools are better than rural schools, and the best students are affected by not being able to go to the school of their choice due to lack of space or other circumstances. Everyone also prefers boarding schools in Kenya, as national boarding schools are of the highest quality. In Kenya, we have national schools, county schools (Kenya has a county system of government), extra county schools, and sub-county schools. We have national exams for all levels of education, and if a student does not pass the national exams, they go to a lower quality school. This is based on our newly improved educational system, which ensures education for all. 

There is another problem worthy of mentioning which some parents are putting their children in boarding schools at an extremely early age because they are preoccupied with work. Although these kids are fed and cleaned, they do not receive the same amount of affection and care if they were living with their parents. Some are forced to grow up early as some boarding schools for the nursery cannot care for all of their kids. 

SERENA: Have you seen any major similarities or differences between the educational environment here in China and the educational environment back home? If so, what were they? 

RITA: I’ve noticed that the difference between the quality of education in rural and urban schools is not as large in China. Rural schools in China look like an urban school in Malawi, and this is something to praise China on. 

DUKE: I noticed key differences between teachers, students, and their interactions during my stay in China. Here, teachers undergo continuous training to develop their teaching skills, but in African countries, this rarely occurs and is something that we need to work on. On the other hand, the stress levels and amount of pressure are much higher in China than in Africa. I personally believe that the stress levels here are too high, and students should be given more time to be kids, relax, and figure out who they are. 

CLEMENT: I agree with both Rita and Duke. Shanghai urban and rural schools are quite similar in quality compared to urban and rural schools in Ghana. Moreover, teachers are very time conscious here, and there are strict deadlines imposed on the students as tardiness disrupts teaching and learning. I agree with this statement, but in Ghana, it is quite different, there is a concept called “Ghana Man Time” used to describe the lack of importance Ghanaians place on being on time. If students were told to meet at eight o’clock, they would be showing up at nine. Lastly, there is also a difference in the structure of the educational system. Ghana has secular schools, and students can go into any school around Ghana based on their raw scores from the national exams, but in China, students can only attend schools in their cities. 

SERENA: What would you say are the weaknesses and strengths of this program and the educational system in China? 

PHILIP: I definitely think that the educational system is strong. The structure is well organized, and the content is of high quality. However, I did identify a need to strengthen the social skills of Chinese students. Prior to visiting Shanghai, I expected every student in the city to be able to hold a simple conversation in English just like the Chinese population living in Africa are able to do so, but when I arrived I was wrong; when I greet someone, they do not respond, the Chinese students seemed quite closed off. Perhaps it was not even a language issue but a cultural difference that can be closed if students are taught to be more open towards speaking to people from different backgrounds. 

I’m not used to the volume in which Chinese people speak, it’s quite loud, and in the beginning, I thought they were angry at me because of something I did wrong, but over time I learned that it was just how people speak here.

Rita Mkhomaanthu

CLEMENT: I agree with Phillip, the educational system is very good, but the intensity of the program could have been lessened. The course was packed as we were expected to learn the content for a two or three-year Master’s degree in one year. In African countries, the weekends are for resting, going to church, and spending time with family, but during this program, we had lectures to attend in order to complete the content. We were not used to this amount of work and became tired towards the end of the program. 

RITA: I also agree with Phillip and Clement. The courses were quite repetitive as well as some courses seemed to have similar content but were just called different names. I thoroughly enjoyed the content that was taught, but the repetition made the program quite intense towards the end. 

DUKE: The course was very detailed and in-depth. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned earlier on in the interview, there was a lot of pressure to meet deadlines and complete assignments, which made the work quite stressful. The content was also assessment heavy, whereas it should’ve been more focused on knowledge. I believe that if the content was more concise and more time was allocated to the students; the course would be even more effective than it already was. 

The following will be the other half of this interview discussing the African Scholars’ cultural experience in Shanghai. 

SERENA: What did you think of Shanghai or China prior to visiting? 

RITA: I had high expectations for China, I thought the quality of life and facilities were going to be high, and my expectations were mostly met. There is a definite contrast between the culture and way of living in Malawi and China. 

CLEMENT: Thankfully, my assumptions pre-arrival were not deemed to be true. There have been some instances where a few Chinese businesspeople in Ghana have not abided by the law, and that gave me the impression that Chinese people were rebellious and dangerous. However, it was the complete opposite; the Chinese are extremely law-abiding and respecting the public’s wellbeing. At the beginning of the pandemic, as soon as the Chinese government made masks mandatory, every citizen wore masks, whereas, in Ghana, the citizens aren’t as obeying. 

SERENA: Were there moments where you experienced culture shock or large cultural differences? What were they? 

PHILIP: I think it’s important to discuss culture because it’s our history and origin. People often find it difficult to understand someone else’s culture, and to discuss cultural differences, not wanting to offend one another, it is crucial to be respectful. Chopsticks were something very unfamiliar and quite frankly, very confusing to me, but seeing Chinese people be completely comfortable using them made me appreciate this skill. Moreover, I’ve also noticed that there is more dependency on technology here than in Sierra Leone. Everyone seems to be on their phones a lot even when they are on bicycles, which could potentially be quite dangerous. It’s interesting to see how various countries interact with technology differently.

RITA: I’m not used to the volume in which Chinese people speak, it’s quite loud, and in the beginning, I thought they were angry at me because of something I did wrong, but over time I learned that it was just how people speak here. I have also noticed the immense importance Chinese people place on education. Not that us Africans don’t, but success seems to be associated with education here, and in Africa, it’s quite different. We definitely value education, but we also think it is not all there is to a child’s success. 

CLEMENT: I’ve noticed that Chinese people are not used to people of color when we were on the metro people would not sit next to us, I recognize that this is not because Chinese people are ill-willed but because Chinese people just aren’t comfortable being around people of color because there aren’t that many in China. This is something that I think Chinese people should work on as China-Africa relations strengthen, and as the two parties become more involved with each other. It is also crucial that Chinese people learn to be at ease around people of different skin color and appearance. Familial relationships are also different here, Africans visit each other’s families at least once a day, but when I asked my teacher how often she visits her sister, I was shocked to hear that she hasn’t seen her in months. 

DUKE: When you have eaten a certain type of food your whole life, it takes a long time to be used to another, so it was comforting to see that Chinese cuisine has a lot of rice. Chinese cuisine also has more salt and uses different spices than Kenyan food. The biggest cultural shock in food that I experienced was eating chicken legs. In China, chicken legs are a delicacy, but in Kenya, we just throw them away. I thought that this was a difference between Chinese cuisine and Africa, but I learned from my peers that chicken feet are popular in South Africa too. I think it’s important to notice that there are differences between African foods as well; West Africans love chili, but us Kenyans don’t. 

SERENA: Thank you so much for your insightful and detailed answers, the last question is: how would you briefly describe your overall experience? 

PHILIP: It was extremely informative, and I cannot wait to share the experience and knowledge I’ve gained here to my community members. 

CLEMENT: The pros definitely outweighed the cons. Although there were challenging moments, I would still describe it as a perfect experience. 

RITA: I loved it; being exposed to a completely different culture was a rare opportunity to learn. 

DUKE: It was a unique opportunity to learn more about people in other African countries and ourselves. 

Gioia Serena Wang is a rising Senior at Wellington College International Shanghai where she’s studying to complete the IB Diploma.

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