(CNN) —Inside a brightly-lit classroom, around 20 schoolchildren are enthusiastically singing the Chinese national anthem.
That song is followed by another tune in Chinese — one typically sung during the Lunar New Year.
But this scene is not taking place in a Chinese school but at Lakewood Premier school, thousands of kilometers away in Nairobi.
Here, schoolchildren are learning Mandarin, a language spoken by nearly 1 billion people almost 8,000 kilometers away from their home.
Sandra Wanjiru, 13, is one of hundreds of African schoolchildren who are increasingly proficient in the Chinese language.
More will join their ranks in 2020 when Mandarin will be officially taught in all Kenyan schools
alongside French, Arabic and German, which are already on the curriculum.
Lakewood Premier School, where Wanjiru studies, has begun the program a year early to give its pupils a head start.
“I chose to learn Chinese first because it’s interesting to learn a foreign language but also because I would want to travel and do business in China,” said Wanjiru.
Julius Jwan, CEO of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), told Chinese state-owned Chinese news agency Xinhua: “The place of China in the world economy has also grown to be so strong that Kenya stands to benefit if its citizens can understand Mandarin.”
China’s growing influence in Africa
China has become increasingly powerful and prominent across Africa over the past two decades.
Through President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, China has loaned money to African countries to build highways, dams, stadiums, airports and skyscrapers. The Asian powerhouse has given out more than $143 billion in loans to African countries since 2000, according to the Johns Hopkins SAIS China-Africa Research Initiative.
Kenya is not the only country teaching its youngsters Chinese; in South Africa, Mandarin has been an optional language course for students since 2014, and in December 2018, Uganda introduced Mandarin to secondary students in selected schools.
Henry Adramunguni, a curriculum specialist at Uganda’s National Curriculum Development Centre, said Mandarin was included in the curriculum because it is one of the United Nations’ languages of work. Ugandan students also have the choice of learning French, Arabic and Latin or German in school.
“We want to give the opportunity for our young Ugandans to have access to jobs, education, and business beyond our borders. That’s why we’ve given them this opportunity to learn Chinese,” he said.
Teachers in the program were trained by tutors at the Confucius Institute, a non-profit organization, working to promote Chinese language and culture around the world.
Confucius launched its first outpost in Africa at the University of Nairobi in 2005 and has since expanded to 48 centers across the continent.
They are run by Hanban (the Office of Chinese Language Council International) and are part-funded by the Chinese government and the universities that host them.
China ranks second only to France as the country with the most number of cultural institutions in Africa; a remarkable rise given China has no colonial ties with any country on the continent unlike France and the UK, which have traditionally used cultural institutes such as Institut Français or the British Council to wield influence abroad.
The continued expansion of Chinese cultural institutes on the continent is part of the country’s strategy to increase its influence in Africa through ‘soft power,’ says Ilaria Carrozza, a researcher on China-Africa relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
China hopes that by encouraging the study of its language, it can boost its soft power and appeal abroad, says Carrozza.
“Soft power, if successful, may lead to more influence — as a matter of fact, it is more than just influence and rather works through persuasion and attraction,” Carrozza said.
She added that African governments see the introduction of Mandarin and Chinese institutes as an investment in the future of young Africans.
“African governments hope that introducing Mandarin in school curricula will lead to a future workforce that gets better jobs either in China or with Chinese companies operating in the continent,” she said.
Despite the apparent advantages, Carrozza warned that African governments should keep a close eye on these institutes especially in the wake of closures in the US of such centers amid fears of interference from the Chinese Communist Party.
The University of North Florida joined a growing list of American schools to end its partnership with the Confucius Institute, saying the center’s activities did not align with the school’s goals.
The decision was welcomed by US Senator Marco Rubio who has been an outspoken opponent of the institutes.
“Without degenerating into a witch-hunt, this is something African governments and institutions need to carefully consider in each individual case,” Carrozza said.
China’s Foreign Ministry denies accusations the government interferes in running the institutes.
Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a February media briefing in Beijing: “All the Confucius Institutes in the US are jointly established in American universities in accordance with their voluntary application and in line with the principle of mutual respect, friendly consultation, equality and mutual benefit by the Chinese and American universities.
In Kenya, the introduction of Mandarin hasn’t been welcomed by all.
Wycliffe Omucheyi, chair of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), said he believes the government is rushing into the program. Rather than Mandarin, students should be taught indigenous African languages, he said.
“The government needs to develop the vernacular languages classes first before embarking on something foreign,” said Omucheyi.
Despite these concerns, Russell Kaschula, a professor of African Language Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa, said it would be naive for Africans not to learn Mandarin as China is a major trading partner to many countries on the continent.
“It is as important as the learning of English, French and Portuguese were back in the 19th century in Africa,” he added, referring to a time when former colonial powers imposed their languages.
Africans often have to learn new languages as a matter of necessity and as long as foreign languages are optional, Kaschula said having them in a school’s curriculum was not a problem.
“Nelson Mandela once learned Afrikaans so that he could understand the Afrikaner oppressors better,” he said.
“In the same way, I think the learning of Mandarin makes sense to Africans.”
Aanu Adeoye and Idris Mukhtar, CNN