Russian Language: Too Little, Too Late for Africa

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By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh

Russian language study is hitting magnificent roadblocks in Africa. For several years after the Soviet collapse, Moscow has been stepping up efforts to strengthen Russian language study and its culture across Africa. But there have been few tangible results largely due to low motivation towards the language, its usefulness is blurry compared to other foreign languages including French, English language and now Chinese.

In the previous years, there has been an increasing concern about Russia’s extremely low presence in Africa. Russia’s initial interest was to become part of Europe and construct business ties from Lisbon to Vladivostok, its dream of a prestigious Global North. Africa’s potential is obvious to everyone. Due to the changing geopolitical situation, Russia now hopes to normalize cultural relations but has been hampered by multiple challenges.

The Kremlin leadership, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the NGOs, including the Russkiy Mir Foundation created to support language study inside Africa, have to seriously prioritize various motivating factors such as broad all-year-round tourism, people-to-people exchanges, cultural linkages, and more educational collaborations. Trade ties, especially the small and medium scale operators in the private sector (as opposed to state corporate commercial deals) and business people’s interactions are highly limited between the two regions.

Critics say Russia, a staunch advocate for multipolar but still, in real terms, stands far from being receptive, interactive and integrative with foreigners. As it appears, Russia’s irreconcilable cultural differences and colour-discriminatory attitudes make the country a segregated society. It is noticeable that potential African learners simply see few opportunities for practising the Russian language and hard to deepen cultural understanding and dispel stereotypes.

Critics further express doubts, and to what degree, the Russian language can bolster bilateral cultural relations with Africa. Russia’s tourism destination spots are still not popular among the middle-class estimated at 350 million which is double the population of Russia.

Most Africans prefer to study foreign languages to ensure smooth participation in interstate activities such as trade and to maintain relationships with people abroad. Foreign countries, for example, Britain, the United States, European countries and now China are their traditional favourites. There are always interactive programmes and cultural activities operated, throughout the year, by foreign missions and NGOs to support government efforts in forging external multifaceted relations.

From different perspectives, Russia has not been a major economic giant in Africa compared to Western and European countries and China. Due to this historical truth, Africans have little interest in studying the Russian language and its culture. The Russian language itself does not sound attractive in terms of its economic opportunity and therefore Africans prefer to study languages that readily offer opportunities. Russia appears quite removed from Africa’s development issues, it is only mentioned in limited areas like weapons and military equipment supplies to French-speaking West Africa. China is making huge contributions in the continent and this has made Africans see the need to understand the language to have better interaction with them and sustain long-term friendship.

More comparably, the research indicates a greater number of Chinese Confucius Institute, an equivalent of Russkiy Mir, in Africa. Nowadays, China is being viewed as a strong strategic partner in Africa given its (China’s) strong footprints in diverse economic sectors. China has more than 20 Confucius Centers and a party school in Africa. Western and European countries, and Asians for example China consistently support civil society, youth programmes and women’s issues, – these are completely vacillating between points of hope and despair on Russia’s radar.

Russian authorities are struggling to find effective ways of marketing the country’s language abroad by establishing language centres, for instance in Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa currently operating in Africa. Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and Mali have declared the Russian language as the second language, compulsorily to be studied in national schools and as an oriented strategy for consolidating cultural cooperation with Russia. It is also envisioned as overcoming social inequality and involvement of the young in sustainable economic development in those African countries.

In June 2001, the Russkiy Mir Foundation was created by a decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin to restore the Russian cultural image and promote the Russian language and its literature abroad, and its activities (operations) are financed under a special state budget allocation approved by the State Duma (lower house of parliament) and the Federation Council.

Chronicling reports on opening Russian language centres, in a couple of years (2021 to 2023), show the Russia House, the latest non-government organization, has now designed a large-scale educational project titled ‘Distant Russian in Africa’ which consists of free intensive Russian language courses and professional development seminars. Its co-organizers are the Institute of Russian Language and Culture (IRLAiK) of Moscow State University and the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Tanzania. Sources, however, indicate that Russian as a foreign language started last summer in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Mauritius and Madagascar.

As Russkiy Mir reported, for teachers teaching Russian as a foreign language, Moscow State University usually holds training for educators from East African countries. It was also decided to hold a video conference in the field of tourism. But the point is that Russian authorities have to address the basic issue of running travel and exchange programs for Russian learners, increasing the number of foreign trips (alternatively referred to as study tours) including for Russian language learning purposes in the Russian Federation.

Observers suggest that Russia and Africa should have more and more youth exchanges. Representatives of African countries, as part of the New Generation programme, travel to Russia to participate in short-term programmes designed for young representatives from political, public, scientific and business circles to get acquainted with the people, the city landscape and interesting spots in the Russian Federation.

Generally, it’s time for Africans to create their solutions. Africans have waited for Russia’s pledges and promises, several agreements remain not implemented in the cultural and educational spheres. That’s true, as far as analysing contemporary relations between Russia and African countries. And of course, Africans could also take advantage of the contradictions in the geopolitical processes to pick up useful offers made available from foreign players. Long ago, Africans expressed complete readiness for facilitating practical work with Russia. And it’s time for Russia to Act. This sounds wonderful, right?

At the July plenary session in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said “We propose the possibility of opening schools in Africa with a series of subjects taught in Russian. Implementing projects such as the study of Russian and introducing Russia’s high educational standards will create the best foundation for equal cooperation.”

According to Putin, in 28 African countries, a project has been launched to create open education centres to train teachers and educators in children’s preschool institutions, as well as primary and secondary schools. “To do this, we are planning to significantly increase the enrollment of African students in Russian pedagogical universities. We invite our African partners to join in this endeavour,” he indicated in his speech in late July 2023.

Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that Africa has the fastest-growing population in the world. Over 50% of people living in Africa are under the age of 26. At the same time, offering this youth population modern technology in addition to the Russian language would be strategically contributing to the development of their entrepreneurship and leadership qualities, and simultaneously building unique bridges for future collaboration between Africa and Russia.

In conclusion, it is essential to remember to invest in establishing future partnerships. And Russian language could also give an additional dimension, show the roadmap to Africa, and determine the shift in geopolitical relations. Joint declarations, both in Sochi and St. Petersburg, suggested authorities would back away from utter reluctance approach…to take significant new steps forward as well as active engagement in meaningful cooperation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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