INTERVIEW: My experience as an African studying in China – Zakaria Migeto

Zakaria Migeto, a Doctoral student from Tanzania, studies Sociology and International Development in Beijing, China.
Zakaria Migeto, a Doctoral student from Tanzania, studies Sociology and International Development in Beijing, China.

Zakaria Migeto, a Doctoral student from Tanzania, studies Sociology and International Development in Beijing, China. I met with him recently at the lobby of the Hubei Hotel in Beijing to discuss his life journey from Tanzania to being a young scholar in China. Zakaria is a fluent speaker of many languages which include English, Swahili, Arabic, and Chinese. He enjoys Nollywood movies.


PT: Where were you born?

Zakaria: My father was born in Tabora, almost in the Central North region of Tanzania. This is the region around Lake Victoria. My father had to go Dar es Salaam (House of Peace) to study. When he finished his studies, he started working as a Chief Accountant at a shoe factory in Morogoro, near Dar es Salaam. He got married there and I was born there. Soon after, about a year, I was sent to go and live with my grandmother. My father wanted me and my two brothers and two sisters to acquire our mother tongue instead of Swahili which is the national language. My first language is Nyamwezi. My grandfather owned about a hundred cows. Our society engaged in mixed farming; cattle rearing and agriculture. We, the little children, both boys and girls, take care of the calves, while the older boys and men are in charge of the cows. We take them out to pasture daily. The calves are not taken as far as the cows because we were young and adults do not want us to get lost. Also, calves could eat our crops and those of our neighbours. Every family has some cows and farms.

PT: Tell me about your primary school education.

Zakaria: I started primary school in my grandmother’s village. Our grandmother was taking care of me, my brother, and several cousins. She was a disciplinarian, more so than our grandfather. She was the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child type of grandmother. My grandfather used to say “wait until your grandmother comes back” when we misbehaved. We become less disciplined whenever she was away. We didn’t wash the dishes, milk the cows and do our chores. We looked up to my grandmother. Grandmother encouraged education. My village primary school is called Chabutwa, which is also the name of the village. The school provided some education but it was not the best. When I was in primary grade five, my father moved us to another school in another village, which was not far from my grandmother’s village. But it was separated by a forest which has big mangrove trees, and which we believed had witches. This forest also had leopards, hyenas, baboons, lions, monkeys and big snakes. We saw all of these animals except leopards. You could hear them roar though. Hyenas came to the village to steal calves at night, in spite of their being in locked enclosures. People associated them with witchcraft because of their ability to carry out this theft. Cows are separated from the calves at night because if they stay together, they keep on drinking their mother’s milk, which might make them sick. They become too fat. You could see the left-overs of these calves in the morning after hyenas had opened the enclosure and eaten them. At times, we heard the snakes hissing as we passed through the forest at night when we were bringing the cows home. This made me very afraid. We knew there were big snakes around and we avoided the trees that harboured them.

PT: How many years did you spend in your new school?

Zakaria: I was asked to repeat Class 4, so I was there for three years. Primary school takes seven years in Tanzania, but I spent 8 years.

PT: Who was your favourite teacher?

Zakaria: My Headmaster, Mr Mtiliga. He was my favourite because he was open-minded. He interacted with us students, talking to us and listening to us. With him, I can share anything. Our father was living far away so he was a father-figure. He made us laugh by making jokes. I could also practise my English with him. The language of instruction was Swahili. You could not speak your native language at school. If you did, they would hang a sticky snail around your neck, and you get whipped. My Swahili improved a lot when I visited my father in the city.

PT: When did you start learning English?

Zakaria: We started learning it as a subject in primary school but it becomes the language of instruction in secondary school. Swahili is the language of instruction in primary school.

PT: Where did you attend secondary school?

Zakaria: My father brought me back to the city -Morogoro- to attend secondary school. He had fulfilled his goal for me to acquire our mother tongue by living with our Grandma in the village. A lot of children didn’t pass the Primary School final exams so could not advance to Secondary School. I was given preparation for Secondary School. My father sent me to a Muslim school to learn about Islam. The school was owned by a Saudi King. It’s a boarding school in Tanga, another region. I studied the Quran, Arabic and I prayed five times daily. My older brother also attended that school. There was a demonstration by third and fourth-year students and every one of them was expelled. The school authority didn’t want them to influence the first and second-year students. My brother had to leave the school because of this and go to another school in Dodoma. I wanted to be with my brother so I left, even though the expulsion did not affect my class. I passed my Secondary school exams and started High School in Morogoro because I wanted to be with my parents. I had a First Class in my Secondary School exams, the best scores. This means I could go to any school I wanted, but I chose to stay near my parents. I studied for the two years of High School in Morogoro and took the National Exams to enter the University. I passed. I made a Division 2. There were very few universities in Tanzania then. I applied to four of them and I got into two. One of them is the University of Dar es Salaam, the biggest, and the other is the University of Dodoma, which is newer. I decided to go to Dodoma. Dar es Salaam was too big and accommodation was a challenge. Dodoma was new, with very comfortable accommodation for students, and the weather was cooler. Dar es Salaam is hot and humid because it’s on the coast. Also, the Tanzanian government gave me more loans for Dodoma, 80 per cent, than for Dar es Salaam, 60 per cent. I studied History at Dodoma.

PT: What was your experience at the University of Dodoma?

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Zakaria: It was great. I studied History, Geography, and English in High School, so my studies were not so difficult in the university. I didn’t work very hard as an undergraduate so I graduated with a Lower Second.

PT: What was the life of an undergraduate like?

Zakaria: I was free. I had money. Every month, I got some money from the government. I didn’t have to ask my parents or anybody for money. I had friends and I had a social life but I did not drink, smoke or go to the clubs. I saw some students who drank and threw up and I was scared. I also worried about the health effects of smoking. I liked to watch movies. I liked to watch African-American movies on CD’s on the computer or on the TV in our room. I had three roommates the first year. After that, I roomed alone for the rest of my time at the university. I met my wife at the university. She was my classmate. She, too, was studying History. She was a radical Muslim when I met her with the Hijab covering every part of her body, including her face. But I could tell she is tall, slim, and light-skinned from her hands and eyes.

PT: How did you interact with her?

Zakaria: In our second year, we were given a project to work on together, so I asked for her phone number. We started communicating about our project. We were asked to write about the uprising in Libya trying to overthrow Gaddafi. Later, we and other students wrote about Mandela and his relationship with white South Africans as he tried to create a new nation. She said later I was bothering her with the texts I sent to her to wish her good night. She said she thought I was a playboy with many girls. She was right. I left all the other girls when I started courting her seriously. She is a good-hearted and very generous person, willing to sacrifice the last of what she has, even if she herself is deprived. We became friends after she asked me to do certain things that allied with her values and I consented. I helped out a very distressed student. We started dating.

PT: When did you get married?

Zakaria: When we graduated, my father told me I had to go to China to study. She said if I go, her parents would put pressure on her to find another boy. I had the option to introduce myself to her family as intending to marry her. At this stage, you only introduce yourself to the female members of the family, mothers and aunts. The introduction to male members happens during the marriage. I met her mother and other female relatives. After that, I came to China to study the Chinese language for one year. I saw an opportunity for her to come to China to study Rural Development Studies but her parents would not allow her to go.

PT: Then what happened?

Zakaria: They knew I’m here and they said she can only go if we get married because they were afraid of getting pregnant out of wedlock. So, I went home and we got married and we both came here to study. That was in 2013. She did her Master’s degree in China Agricultural University. We were classmates and we pursued the same degree. I was selected to study Agricultural Economy at the same university but I didn’t have the required Math background. Also, Development Studies was taught in English, so I switched to Development Studies. She got pregnant and we had our baby in Beijing in 2014. That was a very difficult time.

PT: What was that like?

Zakaria: We didn’t know anything about pregnancy. Our families were not around. My mother passed a few months after our marriage. I had three jobs to provide for our family. I would come back home exhausted that my hand would be shaking as I held our little baby. We had to rely on Google to help her with some of the problems she had during pregnancy. We consulted Google on everything including how to sleep when the baby was growing in the womb. We went to the clinic every week for her to be checked up. China has a very good health care system, available to all although we thought it was expensive considering we were just students. We were supposed to defend our research proposals. On that very day, my wife started having contractions. She tried to defend it but she couldn’t. I had to help her as I knew all about her research proposal. Because we are of the same age, neither of us thinks he or she is superior to the other. Education is a big factor in how we see and treat each other. Our married life started in China and both us were students, therefore, we never had cultural biases on how to live as spouses. We also got influenced by Chinese culture regarding how spouses treat each other, which is egalitarian. Sometimes in Tanzania people will be looking at us, the way I walk, talk and communicate with my wife. It was not the norm in Tanzania. We both had our individual bank card but I gave mine to her because I was not good at planning with money. She is very good at managing money. Her ideas are usually better than mine. We went back home after obtaining our degrees.

PT: What happened next?

Zakaria: I worked with a Chinese company producing sweets. I was an Assistant Manager, managing the relationships between Tanzanian workers and Chinese owners. I was also in charge of hiring workers. I did this for 6 months and got another job at City Center. I started with a very low salary, but as time goes on, I found better and higher-paying jobs because of my Chinese language skills.

PT: Are there many Chinese companies in Tanzania?

Zakaria: Yes. In my last job with such a company, I was paid $100 a day. They were going to give me a two-year contract but I also got accepted to do a PhD in China with full scholarship. I had to make a decision. They were both great opportunities. I talked to my wife and she said I should go for my doctorate. My father felt the same.

PT: Why did your father ask you to go and study in China in the first place?

Zakaria: My father was working with a Chinese Estate Company in Tanzania that produced sisal. He would visit China for his job. Since I was young, I had wanted to study abroad. I gained admission to a university in India after high school but he said I was too young to go abroad. Some of the boys who went abroad at that age came back different with a lot of behavioural problems. Some didn’t finish their studies. Most parents in Tanzania don’t allow their children to go abroad to study when they are young. On a visit to China to make a presentation on behalf of his company, my father met Professor Li in the School of Humanities and told him I graduated in Humanities. The professor said I could come and study in China. Mr Guan, a colleague of my father, organized my father’s trip to China and he organised the meeting between my father and Agricultural University professors. That was how he met Professor Li. Mr Guan is like my second father in China. Whenever I have problems here, I go to him. He follows my academic work closely and invites me frequently to dinners with his family. I’m like a son to him.

PT: You married your peer, a highly educated Muslim girl.

Zakaria: Yes, my wife came from a rich region of Tanzania, near Kilimanjaro. It produces tea and coffee. It also has a history of good education. Colonizers established very good schools there and people from that region are usually richer and more educated than other Tanzanians, their women included. She, too, grew up with her Grandma and her Aunt educated her. Highly educated girls are often seen as arrogant, so some of them marry rich men so that they could stay humble. They are likely to divorce if they marry their peers.

PT: What the pedagogical differences between Tanzanian and Chinese education?

Zakaria: In Tanzania, it’s more interactive. It’s less so in China. Here the professor gives out the knowledge and students listen. It is odd to ask questions here. It looks as if you don’t have manners if you ask questions from your professor in class. We studied Marx in Tanzania but also critiqued him but here Marx is a way of thinking, living, and governing. It’s Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

PT: What does that mean?

Zakaria: It means China is a socialist country with modifications.

PT: What’s your experience as an African student in Beijing?

Zakaria: When I first came here, I didn’t speak Chinese. I didn’t understand what people were saying about me, so I assumed whatever they were saying about me was good when they took pictures with me. But after I could speak the language, I heard some of them saying uncomplimentary things like “he’s really so dark” when they took pictures. So I knew they were taking pictures to show my skin colour to their family and friends. Having said that, most Chinese people are warm people. When I first arrived, I was looking for a place to print some materials, then I asked a Chinese student. He took me to a print shop and offered to pay. I refused but he insisted. The police are also this way, always friendly, always helpful. Police officers are highly trusted in China.

PT: Tell me about your experience with the police in Beijing?

Zakaria: One day, we were going shopping and the police stopped us to chat. We told them we were going to a certain market and they said it was too far. They gave us a ride in their car. That was not the last time. There was a day I got lost and I asked them for help. They took me to their station to find a translator who could speak English and then they gave me a ride back to my dormitory. A Sudanese student’s bike was stolen where he parked it. He reported it to the police and they went with him to the train station where he parked it. They discovered it was taken away by another police officer because he parked it in a wrong place. They retrieved it for him.

PT: Some African immigrants seem to run into problems with the police. Why?

Zakaria: The majority of those who run into problems are those breaking the law, especially in the industrial cities like Guangzhou, Hong Kong or Shenzhen. Some of them deal drugs or overstay their visa. The police then raid such Africans. When people have visas, they let them go. Sometimes, some Africans steal the passports of other Africans to commit crimes. In Beijing though, Africans generally do not experience problems with the police. Most of us are here to study, work or do legitimate business. Personally, I’ve never been stopped by the police, nor any of my friends.

PT: China and Africa are intersecting at different levels. As a young African scholar, what should policymakers and Africans be doing to benefit from the relationship?

Zakaria: African governments should protect local industries and property rights. In Tanzania, we have kitenge. There are African products that are very well made with good African materials. They are not registered as brands. The Chinese do research there and come back to make their version, at cheaper prices, killing local production. I’m talking of products we use daily, not large items like cars.

PT: How about labour relations between Chinese companies and African workers?

Zakaria: Some Chinese employers treat Tanzanians of different skin colours differently. They are partial to light-skinned Arabs or foreign-looking people. Black Tanzanians are paid lower than others. Tanzanians who speak Chinese do not want to work with local Chinese companies when they graduate. They prefer foreign non-Chinese companies, and local companies not owned by the Chinese but employ Chinese and others. People who speak Chinese are options so they move on to other companies. The turnover is extremely high for Chinese speakers working with local Chinese companies. Also, the local middlemen exploit the workers and engage in sexual exploitation of women as well. The heads of the companies do not usually know.

PT: What advice will you give to young Africans at home?

Zakaria: I wish that they know and uphold their values and dignity, especially girls. I also wish we invest in our own. Many products made here in China can be made in Africa.

PT: Your wife is now in Tanzania with the kids. What are the challenges of separation for long periods of time?

Zakaria: I have to go home twice a year. I miss my family a lot. We do video-calling almost every day, so we can see each other. The kids are five and three years old. It is important for them to see my face and hear my voice all the time. One good thing is that whenever I go home, it’s very easy to find a good job because of my Chinese language skills.

PT: Thank you.


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