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Russian Language Deep in Africa

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Russian Language Deep in Africa

04.02.2021

Sergey Vinogradov

Stanislav Beletskiy, a teacher from Krasnoyarsk, gives Russian language classes at the University of Dodoma, one of Tanzania’s leading universities. He recently posted a video from his class where students occupied all desks, sat on the floor,and in the aisles. Seven years ago, when he first arrived in Tanzania, there were six people in the group only, and now theres no room to swing a cat.

AsStanislavtold Russkiy Mir, the growth in the number of Russian-speaking tourists in Tanzania has caused a real boom in the Russian language popularity among local youth. And after the Russkiy Mir Foundation opened the Russian Center at the University of Dodoma, there is the intention to start teaching the Russian Philology program here in the next year or two.


Entry Point to the Russian World

Was Russian taught at the university before your arrival?

You need to understand the local contexts of Tanzania. Everything is very slow here; no one has any special ambitions. We are accustomed to the fact that parents cultivate aspirations in their children - be faster, higher, stronger. But here people live without it. Therefore, the curriculum was made by the first Russianists who had come to the new University of Dodoma for their first two-year contract. There was no load. As a result, everything continued for a long time, but finally, the program was approved by the ministry. Then the next group of Russianists came, including me. Thus, I came to Tanzania in 2013, and since then I have been teaching Russian.

- When you first started teaching in Tanzania, what motivated the students who attended your Russian classes?

There were six people only in my first group. They were very practical. Those students were from Zanzibar with major in tourism and cultural heritage. I asked them why they had chosen Russian to study, and they answered that there was a certain trend in the tourism business: the inflow of German tourists was usually followed by the inflow of Russian ones. I dont know how true it is, but they expected Russians to become more interested in their island. That happened in 2013, and by now those guys have succeeded in tourism. One of them earns good money as a guide; the other one has become a tour manager and now builds up tourist flows from his office. They have built houses, got married. They have been gaining profit and deriving advantage because currently, Zanzibar enjoys true Slavianski Bazaar with Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish tourists. And now there is an enormous demand for learning the Russian language.

What future trends do you see?

The Russian Center of the Russkiy Mir Foundation is to be opened at the University of Dodoma. In fact, this has already happened. Books and office equipment are here; at our earliest opportunity we will arrange everything in the office allocated to us, and I will start holding cultural events. I think we will have an official ceremony as the opening of the first Russian Center deep in Africa/ in Africa inner land is an important event.

What will students and city residents get as the result?

It is very important for my work that the center will provide full methodological support for the Russian Philology bachelor degree program. We have not enrolled students in this program yet, because more teachers are needed. I think it will be launched in a year or two. I'll make sure the teachers are found. We have books here in the library, but they are outdated - the literature on the language generally becomes outdated very quickly.

We have been provided with 1,500 books and tablets, a projector, and a computer for teaching and the Center activities. The Russian Center will enable local audiences, not just students, to have access to learning resources. Anyone who is interested in Russia can come during working hours to read literature, watch films, search the Internet for the necessary information, get advice about studying in Russia and other issues related to our country. The Center will become the entry point to the Russian world. I would also like the Center to work in two directions. For example, Russians who would like to study Swahili could take part in a summer language school or a literary translation workshop.


From Siberia to Africa

How did you end up in Tanzania?

I graduated from the foreign language department; my first language was German, English was second, the third one was Spanish. In my student years, I went to Germany under the academic exchange program, and then I embarked on postgraduate studies. At the university in Bayreuth, where there is the department of African studies, I decided to learn an African language. Taking into account my schedule, Swahili was the best option for me. It is the most spoken African language. I took a six-month semester course, met Africanists at the Institute of Asian and African Countries in Moscow. They gave me their textbooks and dictionaries. Then I started working at the Krasnoyarsk Federal University and three years later I saw an ad that a university from Tanzania was looking for teachers.

People in Tanzania speak Swahili and the country fascinated me. The ad stated that teachers from Russia were invited; it specified the terms, the load, and the required subjects. Russian as a foreign language was also on the list. Back then, the terms seemed dreamlike to me. Salaries were lower than in Europe but rather decent.

Did you visit Africa before that time?

No, I didnt. I once made an attempt to fly to Kenya for some youth event, but it turned out to be more than I could manage too far, expensive, incomprehensible, there was no trust. A set of stereotypes about Africa played its role, and I did not go to the event.

How easy was it to move from Siberia to remote Africa? What spirit did you have?

My mind was set on coming, looking around, and leaving if I did not like it here. Having arrived to a different reality, I had the right to turn around and leave. And the inviting party understood that.

There are several stages when you come into a foreign culture. The first stage is a honeymoon when a person likes everything and enjoys living in a new reality because all problems were left in the past. It is followed by cultural shock when stress is triggered by the fact that everything is different and nothing is familiar. Well, I did not have a honeymoon in Tanzania - immediately there was a culture shock. The first two months I had to live in a hotel located in the area of the shopping arcade. Basically, it was like living in the middle of a big market. And these people with carts, loud voices were very disturbing. There was also a mosque nearby, and I used to wake up from calls of prayer at 5 am.

Over time, I got used to all those things, but in the beginning, the shock was quite strong. And then the honeymoon began. Russian friends who had come to Tanzania earlier took me to the beaches, and on safari. I saw lions, elephants, antelopes, giraffes in the wild. This experience, of course, is beyond words. Having seen animals in the wild, I have not been able to go to zoos any more.


Motivation to speak Russian

How did you notice the Tanzanian students growing interest in the Russian language? When did it start?

At first there were six students, after a year about thirty more people joined them. Then I left for Russia for a year. Having returned, I taught thirty students. I was the one who restricted the number of students in the classroom, and in the beginning, thirty was the limit. Last academic year there were sixty students; and this year I felt ashamed and decided to lift restrictions, as I am the only university teacher in Tanzania who can teach Russian. And two hundred people came to classes.

You posted a video from your lesson, where the classroom was crowded with students. Was it a regular lesson or some special occasion?

It was the first lesson. I was given a classroom for 50 people, and I did not expect such a rush. Two hundred people came. Now we use different classroom - a large room has been allocated, so all students sit at their desks. I use a projector, and a microphone trying to teach in a large group. It is clear that the learning outcomes will be more modest than in a small group, but it seems to me that with the development of modern technologies each of these two hundred students has a chance to learn the language to a usable level. The purpose of the classes is to enable them to work in the local tourism business, and Russians, as well as Russian speakers from other former USSR republics, can feel more or less comfortable in this country. This is my main task.

Since local students are focused on tourism, what do you give importance to in the classroom?

I leave specific fields for the third year. I teach basic Russian during the first two years. I use basic communication textbooks and add a couple of excellent grammar textbooks for studying Russian as a foreign language written in English. I did not find Russian language textbooks in Swahili, although, they say, there are such textbooks available for Swahili speakers at RUDN University.

Is it easier to work with highly motivated students?

Motivation is very important. Of course, money is a low-level but understandable motivation. Later on, having already been in the tourist business for some time, they understand that studying Russian enriches them not only with money but also communication, their minds expanded and life became more conscious. One of my first leavers had difficulties even getting a C. But some time later, I met him and was astonished - he spoke to me in pure Russian. He conducts tours for Russian speakers, so this is how he got motivated.

They still cherish the memory of Soviet aid

Do you, a university teacher, notice an increase in the number of Russian and Russian-speaking tourists in Tanzania?

I don't see this in my professional activities, but I notice it in my everyday life. Zanzibar is now Russian-speaking, it can be clearly seen. The country with an economy relying on tourism was hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. Suddenly everything stopped; there were six months of famine - hotels and restaurants had to close; only now the revival is beginning. The country is coming to its senses due in no small way to Russian tourists. And they really like it here. I monitor online reviews - everyone is delighted.

It is rather unlikely for an ordinary Russian to name the countries that share borders with Tanzania without looking at a map. Does an ordinary Tanzanian distinguish Russia from other European countries?

- Unfortunately, that's the case. The mass consciousness sees Africa as a blurred black world with wars and famine where Doctor Aybolit saved everyone. It seems to me that academic and journalistic communities should make efforts to clear out such perceptions. Because it comes from a stereotype of the colonial period, and it has not reflected the actual situation for quite a while. People here have roughly the same thinking about the "white world" - it is a kind of amorphous mass at the top of the world map for them. Everything is fine there, prosperous people live there, they know neither hunger nor problems. Ordinary people, no matter how much you explain to them, do not want to understand that white people also have to break stones to make living.

Does Tanzania keep the memory of Soviet aid and studies of local students in USSR universities?

The older generation still cherishes this memory - those who studied in the Soviet Union, in its Russian-speaking part: the RSFSR, Ukraine, and Belarus. They remember all this and try to guide their children towards Russia. However, there have been competing organizations from China, Japan, Korea, Sweden established. And young people choose where the scholarship is higher and the flight is cheaper. Even being provided with a scholarship to study, many Tanzanians cannot afford to pay travel and accommodation expenses. However, they continue to go to Russia and Ukraine for medical education, which is considered to be the cheapest in the world.

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