Beijing’s skyline wowed Lina Getachew Ayenew when she arrived in the Chinese capital five years ago, but she was surprised to find the pedestrian bridges looked just like those in her native Addis Ababa.
It turns out the building materials used in Ethiopia’s capital were imported from China — one of many signs of the country’s impact on Africa’s developing economies. Ayenew has been building bridges herself, by creating the first Amharic-Mandarin language guide.
“I had this stereotype [of China] growing up, so this level of development is a part of China I discovered after I came here,” says 29-year old Ayenew, who was raised in Ethiopia, gained undergraduate and masters degrees at Yale University in the US, and moved to China in 2011 to teach medical English. “I don’t know how many Americans know the scale at which China has developed.”
Her fellow Ethiopians do, though. Hundreds of them now live in China, either on government scholarships or because their families pay for Chinese studies. A Chinese education is more attainable than going to the US and, for many, more useful.
Chinese investment in Africa has soared, reaching $26bn as of 2013, with another $60bn pledged in late 2015. Ethiopia’s educated workforce and leather industry have attracted Chinese manufacturing and textile investment.
At a welcoming party for 70 Ethiopian students in Beijing last year, Ayenew “noticed this collective thinking we need to bring knowledge back to our country. China has so much to teach us. There was a collective admiration of China that bounced from speaker to speaker.”
Expat life in Beijing can be lonely, especially in winter when smog settles on the capital. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopians love to socialise in coffee shops with outdoor seating; in Beijing, “because of the pollution, you are made to spend time indoors”. The upside is that watching television is good for her Chinese.
It also makes the days when Ayenew can see the skyline all the more precious. “Even though I know the buildings are probably fancier than they should be, it’s just so fascinating,” she says. “Being on a high floor and looking out on the city on a clear day is my favourite part about Beijing.”
Ayenew’s inspiration for her guide, Dalu: Introduction to Chinese for Amharic Speakers, came while teaching medical English in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in south-east China. She noticed that Amharic, the main language in Ethiopia, written in the 2,000-year-old Ge’ez script, conveyed Chinese sounds well. Back in Ethiopia, the book became a “passion project”. Friends helped with fact-checking, and the Chinese embassy sent a representative to the book’s launch in Addis Ababa in May last year.
Ayenew marketed the book through TV and newspaper interviews because she found Ethiopia’s bookselling industry hard to navigate. Yet despite being available in only one bookshop, the initial 2,000 copies sold out in six months.
“I felt there was a need,” she says. “It’s like throwing a stone into the abyss and hoping it lands somewhere.” Not being Chinese makes her explanations more accessible, she says. “I was so scared that people would look on it as a negative: ‘You are not Chinese; you don’t know.’ Actually, the fact I am not Chinese made it easier for them to approach me and ask more questions.”
Education has always been important to Ayenew and her four sisters. Their parents had to leave school at a young age. “Ever since we were little, that is what they drilled into us: you need to be educated. That was the most fundamental thing, especially because we were girls.” Education in Ethiopia is still a struggle for many. Teaching materials are limited and internet connections patchy. Many smartphones and browsers still don’t support the Ge’ez script.
“A journalist asked me what I admire about China and its people. One thing that came to mind was that in China and many parts of the world you can just use your own language to get higher-level degrees,” Ayenew says.
Cue Ayenew’s larger ambition: to create an online trove of resources in Amharic and other Ethiopian languages. She is influenced by the Khan Academy, an educational website that offers free online courses and instructional videos. “My dad is my ideal customer: someone who wants to learn but, because of the language barrier, has trouble,” she says.
For now, living in Beijing with her Ethiopian-British husband, a businessman and fellow Sinophile, Ayenew is working on audio lessons to accompany the book, which is available on her Dalu Media website.
She is also developing a speciality in China-Africa relations. She sees China’s engagement with the continent as positive, as long as it benefits host countries such as hers. China’s greatest contribution to Ethiopia could be the example of a proud, ancient civilisation reclaiming prosperity and international influence after decades of poverty and isolation. “China’s system of doing things looks like it’s copied, but really, a lot of things they converted to their own,” she says. “I think that’s the important lesson.”