For the past two decades, Russian language studies has drastically fallen among the African population primarily due to lack of general interest, financial constraints in support for study programs and a lack of consistent interactive cultural activities by the Russian authorities, both Russian and African experts say.
The study of foreign languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Dutch and the emerging interest in the Chinese language, has been a long part of Africans lives, especially of those who hope to move across borders and have smooth interactions with other nationals from different countries all around the world.
Joel Ayim-Darkwah, a graduate from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and now an independent researcher in foreign policy and diplomacy, told this correspondent that most Africans prefer to study the above mentioned international languages to ensure the smooth participation in interstate activities such as trade and in order to maintain relationship with people abroad. Foreign countries like Britain, the United States, France and China are Africans favorites from the interactions of which they derive many economic benefits.
Unfortunately, Russia has not been a major economic giant in Africa when compared to the other western nations and China. Due to this historical truth, Africans have little interest in studying the Russian language and its culture as well.
The Russian language itself does not sound attractive in terms of its economic opportunity and its communist political ideologies, and therefore, they will prefer to study languages of nations that offer huge economic opportunities and have political ideologies like the idea of western democracy, he said adding that “the west, and most importantly now, China are making huge contributions to the continent and this has made Africans see the need to be able to understand their language in order to have better interaction with them.”
One can say that the Russian government hasn’t given Africans the reason to study their language because it has little influence on the continent especially in areas such as education, infrastructure, agriculture and technology which has been the most important aspects of Africans in recent past. And obviously, Asian countries have given Africans strong reasons for them to study their languages because they are the major economic partners of Africans, according to Ayim-Darkwah.
Shatilov Andrei, a deputy director at the Saint Petersburg State University admitted frankly in an email interview to Buziness Africa that the interest to the Russian Language in African countries has been extremely low mostly because of economic reasons. In the Soviet era, all costs associated with the learning of the Russian language were covered by the Soviet government, and students from African countries were studying free of charge, they even got some kind of financial support. Now foreign students including Africans have to pay for their education which is difficult at times. Besides that, the trade between Russia and Africa is quite small so there is no demand for the Russain Language from businessmen.
Naftali Mwaura Muigai, an expert on social communication and cultural policy based in Nairobi, Kenya, told Buziness Africa that geopolitics could possibly be part of the reasons because since the end of cold war, the West has had a strong grip on Africa, influencing everything from culture to politics and economics.
“Russia appears quite removed from African issues, it is only mentioned in limited areas like weapons trade and the provision of technology to explore hydrocarbons. We don’t have vibrant Russian cultural centers in many African cities hence the low uptake of the language. Likewise, there are limited scholarship opportunities for African youth to study in Russia. Nowadays China is being viewed as a strong strategic partner in Africa given its (China’s) strong footprint in diverse areas such as commerce, culture and technology transfer,” he pointed out in an emailed interview.
Similarly, Ojijo Pascal who is a lawyer, guest lecturer and an author based in Kampala, Uganda, observes that many intellectuals and youth hardly hear of Russia in Africa at all, the Russian government does not support youth advocacy programs and women’s issues, - these are completely not on the Russian radar.
“The Russian government does not carry out Russian cultural events, there are no visible Russian cultural centres (as compared with the French cultural centres and German cultural centres), there are no Russian funded youth Think Tanks, like the Germans and Americans have done in some countries on the continent. There is a huge cultural gap of new thinking, working with young professionals and associations to promote people-to-people diplomacy through business links, cultural exchanges, and competitions,” according to Ojijo.
“Indeed, apart from the military, the other areas are terrible. The Russian studies programs are not well publicized, and I think they are run by ministries in the governments, and hence the lack of publicity, perhaps. Either way, I think it is time to have a new strategic direction in Russia's cultural diplomacy,” he pointed out.
For Sam Ditshego, senior research fellow at the Pan African Research Institute in South Africa, the first issue to acknowledge is that the West is culturally entrenched in Africa because of colonialism and imperialism. For example, in countries that were colonized by Britain or England, English is spoken and the people in those countries and the same is true for countries that were colonized by France and Portugal.
Steve McDonald, a director for the Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity at the Wilson Center in the United States, knows a number of the African liberation movement members, from the ANC, PAC, and FRELIMO parties from the time of the liberation struggle in the south, and Soviet support for that struggle, spent a lot of time in Russia for training and education.
“Many of them tell me that they were not enamored in those days with Russian society, that they faced a lot of discrimination and bias. I am sure that some of those impressions still prevail today. But, it’s probably right when the main cause for not studying Russia as a language has to do with the fact that it is not a language of the modern, global market place,” McDonald explained to Buziness Africa.
For trade and investment the big players are China, US, Germany, Japan, UK, France, Brazil, India, and Turkey, so those are the languages that Africans study. Russia is not seen as a development partner, neither a helper in serious security challenges of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, in particular, he said.
Albert Khamatshin, a researcher from the African Studies Institute under the Russian Academy of Sciences, thinks that Africans are less interested in learning Russian language as compared to other foreign languages and also because the Russian government does little to arouse Africans interest in the language, and what makes the situation worse, is that Africans have lost interest as their leaders have turned away from Russia to Asian countries especially to China.
“In addition, what is absolutely bad for the worrying tendency is that Rossotrudnichestvo, an agency under Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the Russian Federation, is deeply underfunded and certainly loses out when compared with its counterparts – The Goethe Institut, British Council, Instituto Cervantes that operate throughout the world. Another institution – The Russkiy Mir Foundation, which is directly responsible for promoting Russian language and culture abroad, doesn’t even have a single mission in Africa, including North Africa, and I have never heard about any significant project of the Foundation on the continent,” Khamatshin said assertively.
More important is the demand for the language. During the Soviet Union our country was very much engaged with Africa, having joint development projects and many Africans coming to study in Russia at the time. This had a certain effect and still in some places Russian language is being taught thanks to the links created during the Soviet period. But now Russian engagement with African countries is very low making learning Russian language useless for Africans. Only when Russia will intensify its trade and people-to-people connections with Africa, Russian language will regain its position on the continent, concluded Khamatshin.
Quite recently, Russia's Special Envoy for African Affairs, Mikhail Margelov pointed out that the world was constantly changing its configuration, becoming multipolar, and in this new context, the so-called “soft power” was becoming no less significant than military, political or economic factors. “One of the main instruments of this power, which can attract other countries, is the promotion of language and cultural values, or in other words, the export of education,” Margelov said, stressing that the “soft power” was both an effective and long-term foreign policy instrument.
With Russia’s continued desire to extend its economic presence in Africa, early October the Russia’s government announced plans to set up a council for the promotion of the Russian language. Deputy Education and Science Minister Veniamin Kaganov said at a meeting of the United Russia party conference: “The new council is expected to coordinate interdepartmental collaboration and to enhance work that is aimed, among other things, at the rehabilitation of the Russian language inside and the country outside of it.”
After creating the council, both the Russian regions and foreign countries are likely to be more interested in Russian as their native or second language, according to the minister. “I think people will be more motivated to learn Russian when more opportunities emerge and new programs become accessible including online teaching,” he said. “So it will help to revive and foster love and respect for the Russian language and to spark interest in studying the Russian language and Russian culture as well.”
On October 28, the government’s website reported that an official council would be created to promote popularity for the Russian language. The council will advise government on how the state can help support and develop the language. Minister of Education and Science Dmitry Livanov has been instructed to present proposals about the group’s composition. A draft decree from the cabinet of ministers provides for the establishment of a Russian Language Popularisation Council under the Government of the Russian Federation.
Experts believe that the creation of a new council will support the role of Russkiy Mir Foundation. Since its creation by a presidential decree in 2009, Russkiy Mir Foundation has held its popular language and cultural events in Asia, Europe and in the United States, but unfortunately it’s still largely unknown as to when the first event of the “Days of the Russian Language and Culture” will be held inside Africa.
By Kester Kenn Klomegah
Kester Kenn Klomegah, a former editorial staff of The Moscow Times, is a keen foreign policy observer and an independent researcher on China's and Russia's policy in Africa. In 2004 and 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for series of analytical articles highlighting Russia’s economic cooperation with African countries.