16.01.2024 Author: Yuliya Novitskaya

Zenebe Kinfu: “I am always discovering something new in Russia, that’s why I have lived here for so long”

The conversation with Mr Zenebe Kinfu Tafesse, President of the Union of African Diasporas, was direct, frank and in some places sharp. We discussed how Russian journalists should write about Africa and African journalists about Russia. We talked about the problems of employing Africans in our country. And, using concrete examples, we tried to work out how to learn Russian in Africa.

– Mr Zenebe, in one of your interviews in the summer, you said that your African journalists publish about 18 stories about Russia every month in English-speaking African countries. But not many in other languages because there are almost no journalists in French- and Spanish-speaking countries. Is the situation changing now? I know that, for example, the Russian-African Media Platform was launched at the end of November. By the way, our online edition is published in Russian, English and French. We would be delighted to co-operate.

– Unfortunately, nothing in the media space has changed recently. On 11 December, the results of the International Award for Foreign Journalists “Honest Look” were summed up in Moscow. For the first time, journalists from Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso took part in the competition. In total, journalists from 10 countries of the African continent sent their works. It is gratifying that journalist Kester Klomegah from Ghana received one of the main prizes. And, by the way, according to the jury’s calculations, we had more materials – 25.

As the head of the Union of African Diasporas, I can say that while the situation with English-speaking journalists is more or less normal, we still lack French-speaking journalists. That is why we are still looking for them. But we are looking for professional journalists, not bloggers. You must agree that these are different things. A blogger writes alone, so the opinion he expresses on his pages cannot be considered objective. And a blogger does not have the main journalistic genres.

– Russian journalists write a lot for Africans about events taking place in our country….

– Yes, but this cannot be considered completely objective information. African journalists must write for the inhabitants of their countries about events taking place in Russia. And vice versa. It should not be a report to tick a box, but true and reliable information. Journalists should make a detailed analysis of the available facts, objectively show the positive aspects, criticise both Russian and African reality, and predict the dynamics of development in various spheres. Then it will be useful. For now, it is too early to talk about any results. The first serious conclusions can be made in a year or two, not earlier.

If we talk about propaganda, in the good sense of the word, it is certainly necessary because it gives us an understanding of the real picture of things. Remember the pandemic – propaganda information about protective masks had a positive effect then.

Interstate work should be done by international journalists with clear ideas about ideology and political relations. A small example. If I write a story about the meeting of two presidents, I should pay more attention to the president of my country, otherwise, I will show my unprofessionalism. Among other things, the content is very important here. Look, French TV channels have been broadcasting in African countries for forty or even fifty years, but this has not prevented military coups in some countries and their withdrawal from French rule.

– The work of Russian institutions to increase efforts to study the Russian language and our culture in Africa has been very slow. The results are still poorly visible. But the work is going on and, I am sure, it will certainly yield results. To what extent, in your opinion, is the Russian language in demand in Africa?

– Good question, I love answering it. Let’s take a concrete example. Language is a tool, like a fork and a spoon, for eating. And the more professionally we use it, the more we benefit and enjoy the process. So, I don’t think that spreading the Russian language as such does anything for Russia. As a person who speaks seven languages, I am sure that the need to learn a language should always be supported economically. Then this language will spread quickly.

Think back to the nineties. Not a single airport in Turkey, Egypt, or Arab countries had inscriptions and signs in Russian.

– But as soon as the flow of Russian tourists poured in, the picture changed dramatically.

– Absolutely right, especially in Turkey and Egypt. Everywhere there are signs in Russian, in all hotels there are Russian-speaking staff, and in shops, there are Russian-speaking shop assistants, excursions are accompanied by Russian-speaking guides, and in local hospitals there are Russian-speaking doctors.

Or let’s take the Chinese language. Only seven years ago, it was impossible to hear a single Chinese word or see inscriptions in this language in Africa. Today, at any African airport, you will find signs in Chinese. Does this mean that we love China a lot? I am sure that there is simply an economic interest in China, as there has been a huge increase in tourist traffic from that country. By the way, the same thing is observed in Russia.

Therefore, in order for the Russian language to spread on the African continent, there must be an enduring interest in it, backed up economically. Serious Russian companies should come there, and Africans will learn Russian to work in them and with them.

– I think we should not forget the hundreds of thousands of Africans educated in the Soviet Union or Russia who want their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be educated in Russian as well.

– Absolutely. And it is for them that we must first of all open the way. To this end, it is necessary to open branches of Russian universities in Africa to study the language.

It is necessary to expand cooperation in the scientific and medical spheres, as it was in Soviet times. We can give many more examples from various branches of production and spheres of life. But the conclusion will be the same everywhere: language dissemination is possible only if there is a need for it. If you just go around suggesting: to learn our language, it is unlikely that it will lead to the desired result.

To summarise the above… In my opinion, what is being done now in terms of teaching Russian to Africans (I mean sending Russian language teachers there) is not enough. We need to step up our efforts.

– During my conversation with Louis Gouend, head of the Cameroon Diaspora, he focused on the problem of African students finding employment after receiving their education here in Russia. Indeed, there are difficulties. And, unfortunately, they are not being solved as quickly as we would like. Perhaps it is time to bring this problem up for discussion, so to speak, at the intergovernmental level?

– If we talk about the employment of Russian university graduates in Africa, there are certain problems. They have to endure enormous competition with graduates of English- and French-speaking universities, which dominate the labour market. Today, graduates from Indian institutions are also joining them. There are also graduates from China, where about seven hundred thousand Africans are studying today.

If we are talking about Russia, then there is practically no work here for Africans who study in or have graduated from Russian universities. In 2015, a law was passed regulating the work of foreign students. But over time, certain contradictions have come to light. Here is an example. If the law allows foreign students to work, then they can work anywhere, including in the State Duma and the Federation Council. But foreign citizens cannot be allowed, for example, to enter closed territories and be involved in work with information that is a state secret. There are certain difficulties with the admission of foreign citizens to various events, closed territories and facilities. For example, in order to register for participation in a conference, foreign citizens need to provide passport data at least one week in advance. And what to say about work! So, foreigners have to take jobs not according to their education, but wherever they can get them, mostly unskilled jobs: handing out adverts near the metro, trading at the market or dealing in cryptocurrency, which is often connected with crime. This is the case with students.

But we also have another problem concerning national diasporas, which includes people like me. I am talking about those Africans who obtained Russian citizenship a long time ago. Most of us are also not employed, and we have to “sit on the backs” of our Russian wives. This is despite the fact that many of us have higher education from the best Russian universities. There are among us red-degree graduates, candidates and even doctors of science. Many organisations are not ready for various reasons, including mentality, to see Africans among their employees. And no one can force them to do so. Sometimes it seems to me that culture and mentality have not changed much since the days of Hannibal and Peter the Great.

For example, when I left PFUR at the end of 2020, I was looking for a job for a very long time. I was invited to give lectures, but I got a job with difficulty.

Unfortunately, many people can’t stand it and go to the West in search of income. The result is that specialists who were trained in Africa and Russia end up working, for example, in Europe.

– So, we are giving away highly educated and trained personnel for free?

– Yes. At the same time, I can say that if managers of Russian companies operating on our continent hire African students who have graduated from Russian universities, they get excellent employees. I know of such examples in the mining industry and Yandex-taxi.

In this connection, I would like to raise the issue of inviting migrant workers from Africa. It seems to me that such a need is already overdue. Russia is beginning to feel the shortage of labour. I think we will see this more clearly in the near future. If such programmes start to work, it will be the strongest impetus for the study of Russian language and culture in Africa.

But despite all of the above, despite all of the existing difficulties, I sincerely hope for changes for the better.

– Mr Zenebe, you have lived in our country for a long time. What is it like, your Russia? What do you like most of all?

– I have been living here for almost 34 years. Russia is very large, it is difficult to judge it from any one angle. I have travelled around half of its territories. For me, Russia is interesting for its culture, classical literature, classical art, classical ballet, and classical music. Russia is integrated between East and West, and that is its uniqueness. A huge number of nationalities and ethnicities live here.

What do we have in common with you? I am Ethiopian and Orthodox. Different religions coexist in Russia. Russians can only fight if their homeland is attacked by an enemy, then they unite.

I hate it when the history of different countries is compared to each other. Everyone’s history is individual and unique. In the same way, people are created differently from each other – everyone has different height, appearance, character, and health. I am an opponent of globalisation. It seems to me that Russia should not look at anyone else, it should go its own way. This is how I see my Russia. I am always discovering something new in it. That is why I have lived here for so long.

– Mr Zenebe, thank you for your honest and sincere conversation. We look forward to meeting you again.


Yulia NOVITSKAYA, writer, journalist-interviewer, and correspondent of “New Eastern Outlook

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