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Building Bridges
A young Senegalese comes to China to learn engineering and falls in love with traditional Chinese culture
By Li Jing | VOL.10 August 2018

Seydou and some members of taoxun club in Chang'an University (COURTESY PHOTO)

For a year and a half, 19-year-old Thierno Seydou Ka has been studying at Chang'an University in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province. He and his 14 Senegalese peers came here as part of a joint training program between Chang'an University and China Road and Bridge Corp. (CRBC). As engineering students, they will be able to devote themselves entirely to building bridges, both literally and figuratively, as their studies will be entirely funded by the CRBC for the five-year term.

"I decided to take part in this program, on the one hand, to know more about China, and, on the other hand, to study a skill which is badly needed in Senegal, that is bridge and road engineering," said Seydou.

Since 2011, more than 100 students from African countries such as the Republic of the Congo, Gabon and Senegal have taken part in the program. After graduation, many of them returned home to contribute to the development of their country. Others have since chosen to continue their studies on a Chinese government scholarships.

According to Li Quanhuai, Vice President of CRBC, the training program is an important step for building "human connectivity" between Chinese and Africans, following the "material connectivity" between the two countries in the field of infrastructure.

CRBC, a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Co., is one of the four largest Chinese companies in the international engineering contracting market, with a long history in civil engineering projects and construction of roads, railways, bridges, ports and tunnels. Before coming to China, Seydou was already familiar with CRBC, as the firm is in charge of the Ila-Touba Highway project in Senegal. Through this initiative, CRBC is observing adherence to the implementation of concrete measures put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in South Africa in late 2015.

Old dream, new challenges

Born in Senegal's capital of Dakar, Seydou said he was interested in Chinese culture even in his childhood and hoped to visit China when he grew up. After graduating from a local high school, he came to know about the CRBC's scholarship offer and jumped at the opportunity to finally see China with his own eyes.

"I learned from Senegal's Higher Education and Research Ministry about the scholarship. I immediately submitted my application and by the grace of God, along with 14 other graduate students, I was selected," he told ChinAfrica.

Upon arrival in China he faced many challenges. "The first setback was language, because without the language, there isn't much you can do in China," he said. In order to adapt as quickly as possible to his new life, his first priority was to learn Chinese, which presented a great challenge for the young man.

"At first, as the obvious science student, I tried to find some sort of general logical rule between Chinese characters and their pronunciation. But later, I found none. There are only small hints to guess the pronunciation, but each time, you have to consult the dictionary to double check," he said.

Seydou also noted that his experience with Arabic, a language he had previously studied, helped him understand the importance of tones, as a word mispronounced can change the whole meaning of a sentence. Thus, he made it a point to religiously listen to audio recordings from his textbook's every day. He managed to overcome these language barriers with the help of his Chinese teacher, who he described as "excellent and highly professional." "I thank her from the bottom of my heart," he said.

"Moreover, after learning a new word or sentence, we must look for a way to use it in our daily life," he said. His efforts are paying off: Just six months after his arrival in China, he won first place at the Chang'an University's Chinese CRBC speech competition for international students (junior group).

"It was the first time for me to take part in a Chinese speaking contest and the first time to speak in front of such a large audience. It shows that nothing is impossible; all you need is the willingness to overcome," he said.

Head-first in the culture

If Seydou ever saw China as an economic power, it is because of the enthusiasm and kindness of the Chinese people, as well as their traditional culture, which has left a deep impression on him.

"There is a Senegalese proverb that says, when you arrive in a new environment and you see people walking on one foot, do likewise. So, when I arrived here, I tried to live like the Chinese," he said.

Seydou recalls one day, as he was walking in Xi'an with his friends, a beautiful melody caught his ear. "I saw a musician playing on some kind of gourd. Later, I learned that it was a taoxun," he said, referring to one of the oldest wind instruments in China. According to archaeologists, the taoxun was invented in China almost 7,000 years ago.

This musician was actually the owner of an entire store dedicated to taoxun. As Seydou showed unusual interest in this instrument, the musician decided to give him a taoxun and teach him how to play. Through his hard work, he even managed to play a few simple songs in just one week. "My teacher taught me not only how to play taoxun, but also Chinese history and even the Shaanxi dialect," he said.

Since then, the taoxun has become an important part of Seydou's daily life. He even became an active member of the taoxun club of Chang'an University. "Thanks to this instrument, I understand Chinese culture much better now and have since made many Chinese friends. We often practice together nearby the lake within our campus," he added. As for the future, Seydou is determined to use his knowledge in bridge and road engineering for the benefit of his country. "I would love to immerse myself in Chinese and international expertise before returning home," he added.

For the moment, as he gradually adapts to his new life in China, Seydou hopes that his Chinese peers will learn more about his home country. "I now see myself as an academic ambassador of Senegal to the outside world. I feel a sense of responsibility to represent the Senegalese culture in China," he said.

(Comments to lijing@chinafrica.cn)

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