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300 scholarships, 1000 short-term trainings in 8 years: China is the new home for Gambian students

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By Talibeh Hydara

The Gambia has been independent for nearly sixty years and even during the colonial era, Gambians have preferred going to schools in the West with a greater chunk of those who acquired university education going to Europe or the United States of America. Universities in the West continued to attract most young Gambians but since diplomatic relations were resumed between Banjul and Beijing eight years ago, no country in the world has received more Gambian students than China. Why?

For a start, China has consistently offered scholarship packages to Gambian students and according to statistics — between 2016 and 2024 — China has awarded over three hundred scholarships to Gambians for various degree programs.

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To put it into context, that is several times more than all the scholarships awarded to Gambians through the government by the UK, US, and India combined, in the same period.

A robust education system and access to innovative technologies have been game-changers as more Gambian high-schoolers aspire to instead do degree programs in China.

Here are testimonies of Gambians who have completed or are still studying in China:

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‘China shocked me’

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China opened up to the world, it continues to shock first-time visitors about its remarkable development, especially those who mostly rely on Western media reports.

Lamin K Saidy enrolled at Harbin Cambridge University International Economics and Trade in 2019.

Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province and considered one of the coldest cities in the world, is popular for its year-round ice sculptures. Saidy completed his program two years ago but still remembers how mesmerised he was during his studies.

“My studies in China have totally changed my view about the world. China has inculcated the best in me. This is because of their rich culture and patriotism,” he said. 

“At first, I thought China was behind the world in terms of infrastructural development and wouldn’t even be compared with Europe talk less of America. However, during the course of my studies in China, I got to realise that it’s a whole different thing. And a lot that some part of the world especially the West labeled China for, aren’t true.”

Sheriff Bah, a bright young man who taught at his alma mater Nusrat Senior Secondary School for nine years, said studying in China was an eye-opener for him and has since improved his adaptability.

“Studying at a Chinese university has significantly broadened my global perspective. The multicultural environment, combined with China’s rich history and rapid modernisation, has given me a deeper understanding of global dynamics and cultural diversity. I’ve learned to appreciate different viewpoints and approaches to problem-solving, which has enhanced my adaptability and intercultural communication skills. Moreover, witnessing China’s technological advancements and economic growth firsthand has inspired me to think innovatively and consider global solutions to local challenges.”

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Sheriff bagged a master’s degree in business administration at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. For him, having experienced the high-quality education offered in the Asian country, China is the place for young scholars to expand both their knowledge and network.

“I would like to pursue the next stage of my education in China. The country’s commitment to education and research excellence, coupled with its advanced facilities and resources, provides an ideal environment for academic growth. Additionally, the opportunity to continue learning in such a dynamic and diverse setting will further enhance my personal and professional development. Studying in China also offers unique networking opportunities with scholars and professionals from around the world, which can be invaluable for my future career,” he said.

Sheriff has also attended a short-term training on education policy and practice in Shanghai in 2019.

Dr Modou Secka left The Gambia in 2017 to study medicine in China after finishing senior school as the most outstanding student two years earlier.

For six years, Dr. Secka learned the intricacies and dynamics of the medical field at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, HUST, Tongji Medical College in Wuhan, Hubei Province. 

The late Yang Shuzi, a top Chinese mechanical engineer and Cheng Shijie have both attended the university. The latter is a member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Secka is the first Gambian medical student taught in Chinese and despite the general perception about the difficulty of the language, he excelled as always and returned to serve the country.

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“The dutifulness and the tireless Chinese community and students actually influenced me. It has impacted me a lot and proved that there is nothing impossible in this world,” he said.

A bigger task for Dr. Secka now is to secure a license from the Medical Council to start practising and according to him, many more of his colleagues will be coming from China after completing their programs.     

Like Dr. Secka, Mustapha Bittaye also went to China in 2017 and studied language for a year at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, Jilin Province. 

Mr Bittaye then proceeded to Harbin for his bachelor’s degree majoring in software engineering.

“I studied software engineering which deals with technology and if you know China, you know tech giants are based there. China has [the] capability to give students the best knowledge, especially in the area I studied. Educating in China has impacted me a lot and improved my understanding of technology. We had enough practical competitions where we went to universities and departments to compete, like robotic competitions. It has shaped my view about the world of technology,” he said.

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Mr Bittaye, who has returned and now works at Huawei Technologies, said his initial struggles were language-related since he only had a year to study Chinese before attending lectures.

The Gambia in China

There is a strong Gambian student community in China, and it continues to grow. According to Dr Ebrima Bittaye, the president of Gambian Students In China, GSIC, there are more than two hundred registered members enrolled in universities across China.

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“The student body was established in 2018 by our seniors who saw the need to unite the students in different parts of China and give a helping hand when deemed necessary. Amongst the aims is to have annual gatherings, at least once. We do semesterly contributions as well. We have an executive body that changes every year through elections. Members are allowed to take loans with a guarantor. GSIC is well recognised by the embassy, and we always work with them. We also encourage students to have city gatherings,” Dr Bittaye told The Standard.

Enrolled at Zhejiang Normal University in Eastern China, pursuing a PhD in applied mathematics specialising in optimisation, Bittaye, as the student leader, strives to foster a sense of community among Gambian students.

“During my time as the president, I introduce monthly Webinar to delve into different aspects ranging from research, health, business career and so on, in order to bring collaborative ideas as we stay in different universities, cities and provinces,” he said.

The Gambia and China resumed diplomatic ties in March 2016 and six months later, Muhammed Babou arrived in China for studies.

“I was among the first batch of China Scholarship Council (CSC) students to arrive in China in September 2016. I completed my language studies at Tongji University in Shanghai. In August 2017, I moved to Nanjing to attend Hohai University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and Automation. After graduating in July 2021, I continued my studies at Hohai University, pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering. I am now in my final semester, preparing for graduation,” he said.

Babou has spent eight years studying in China, where he has gained top-class knowledge and experienced unforgettable cross-cultural connections, shaping his journey into an inspirational experience.

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“Education in China has significantly broadened my worldview. As an international student here, I have had the privilege of meeting people from all over the world, representing various continents and countries. These interactions and friendships have given me insights into diverse cultures and helped me appreciate our differences. At the same time, I have learned that we share common values, such as the desire for continuous self-improvement and development.”

Babou now wishes to gain work experience after finishing his master’s program.

“However, I would definitely consider continuing my studies in China in the future. The country offers numerous scholarship opportunities, it is safe, and the cost of living is relatively affordable compared to other developed nations. Additionally, Chinese universities are highly competitive on a global scale, consistently ranking among the best in the world.”

Begay Khan works at the University of The Gambia. She was enrolled at the Northeast Normal University in 2022 but had to start online because of the coronavirus pandemic which ravaged the world. She is now in Changchun in Jilin Province pursuing a master’s degree in educational management and policy.

“I recently defended my thesis, and I am now looking forward to my graduation in June 2024. My program is sponsored by the Chinese government’s MOFCOM scholarship, which has been a huge assistance during the last two years.”

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Having experienced both the cultural and the educational aspects of China in the past two years, Begay wishes to pursue more educational opportunities to contribute to national development.

“Absolutely, I’d love to pursue another degree in China. The quality of instruction here is great, and my experience has been quite beneficial. Northeast Normal University’s professors are subject matter specialists who are deeply committed to their students’ success. The institution provides an ideal atmosphere for learning and research, with cutting-edge facilities and abundant resources.

“Living in China has also allowed me to immerse myself in the country’s vibrant culture and traditions. My stay here has been remarkable due to the Chinese people’s hospitality and the diversified landscape. Seeing China’s tremendous economic growth and development firsthand has been inspirational. I believe that continuing my studies here will help me contribute more meaningfully to The Gambia’s educational sector.

“I am really grateful to the Chinese government for providing me scholarship through MOFCOM, which allowed me to pursue this great opportunity. I would also like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the Gambia government and the University of The Gambia for their assistance in creating a solid foundation for my academic career,” she said.

The most inspiring individual story is probably Moses Correa’s, a self-sponsored Gambian student currently pursuing his education at Henan Polytechnic University. This esteemed university is renowned for its rich history, being the oldest mining university in China, with a founding date back in 1909.

Moses did his bachelor’s at Liaoning Petrochemical University in Fushun, and he is now doing his master’s degree in mechanical and power engineering. 

“The Chinese education system, being one of the oldest and most rigorous in the world, has significantly shaped my view of the world. The strong emphasis on academic excellence reveals the value that Chinese society places on education as a means to social mobility and success. Although pressure-filled, it reflects the country’s historical need to efficiently measure students’ capabilities and allocate resources accordingly. The Chinese university system maintains unique qualities such as the dominance of public, government-funded universities and a strong emphasis on teacher qualifications and deliverances,” he said.

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Though struggling to pay tuition fees on his own, Moses is not giving up and hopes to continue studying in China.

“I definitely would love to continue my education in China simply because of my personal experiences and desire to acquire more knowledge.

China has made significant advancements in education and its universities have become increasingly attractive to international students. Academic excellence is one of the top priorities in China’s education system as it has some of the world’s top universities. Studying in China provides an opportunity to learn about different countries’ cultures as it houses so many international students from all over the world.

One other reason is the research opportunities because China has invested heavily in research and development and its universities provide the opportunity to work with renowned scholars and participate in cutting-edge research projects.”

Enrolled at East China Normal University in 2021, Ousman Bah studies mathematics.

Located in the bustling city of Shanghai, East China Normal University is a top institution which has been moulding students into resourceful people across the world.

“The Chinese education system puts a strong emphasis on national values and cultures. I have noticed that most developed countries have nationalized their education in order to attain the needs of their society. Therefore, my overall view of education in the world based on my experience in China is that education blends values and modern skills for global competition,” he said.

Ousman also did his master’s at the same university in 2017 and even though he is doing his PhD, he likes the idea of continuing his education in China.

“I would like to continue my education in China in order to engage in collaborative work with colleagues in the same field with my area of specialization to improve education in The Gambia,” Bah said.

According to the Worldwide Universities Network, Renmin University of China has over 25,000 on-campus students, including over 1,600 international students from 80 different countries. However, there is just one Gambian: Modou Sumareh. Enrolled in September 2023, Modou is doing a master’s degree in development economics at one of the most famous universities in China.

“I feel privileged and honoured to be here. RUC is the first modern university established by the Chinese Communist government in 1937 and that’s why it’s called the University of the People [Renmin means the people in Chinese language]. It’s very competitive to be here. So having the opportunity to come to this prestigious university means so much to me,” he told The Standard

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Having travelled around the world before going to China for education, Modou is very much impressed with RUC’s standards and relishes doing his PhD.

“I had the opportunity to travel to a few countries before for education and training, but my experience in China as a student has been amazing. The school environments are enabling and inspiring. The people are discipline, and very hardworking. At the school level the engagements in and out of class, the course contents, study tours, and other supports accorded to us are beyond my expectations. The standards are high. I have learnt a lot and can’t wait to come back home to apply the knowledge gained to my work.

I’d like to do my doctoral degree in China, because of the great academic standards and enabling learning environment.”

Not just scholarships, trainings too

Apart from scholarships, China has also offered short-term training opportunities to Gambians in various areas across Chinese education institutions.

According to official figures, China has awarded over one thousand short-term trainings to Gambians in five years, with at least 300 short-term training opportunities each year, except for 2020, 2021, and 2022 due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

”Chinese universities have been very important in The Gambia’s drive to build its human capital. They provide graduate training in key areas of importance to the Gambian economy.  Essentially, the Chinese universities are a great partner to the socio-economic development of The Gambia,” said Lamin Ceesay, president of the China-Gambia Alumni Students Association, CGASA.

The alumni association, which was recently inaugurated, has over 150 registered members including those who did short-term courses in China.

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CGASA was formed to keep China-Gambia education connections alive and serve as a guide for those aspiring to study in China.

Ceesay, who attended a short-term program at the Wuhan Research Institute of Posts and Telecommunications in Hubei Province, believes China’s education system is of high quality.

“Chinese education system is highly recognised internationally. Today many Chinese universities are ranked among top universities in the world. My experience in the three months I studied in China, shows that the Chinese education system is of world standard. They have highly educated professors and world-class research facilities,” he noted.

Ceesay is the director of planning at the Ministry of Higher Education Research Science and Technology. 

Alasan Jobe, a senior state counsel at the Ministry of Justice, was in both Beijing and Hong Kong for the training session of the China-AALCO Exchange and Research Program on International Law.

“The main purpose of the training was to enhance our understanding of a wide range of specialised topics in international law such as international investment law, law of the sea, climate change and international law, commercial dispute resolutions and international arbitration. The courses exposed me to the basic principles of international commercial contracts and the instruments that facilitate and ease the governance of such contracts. Foreign Direct Investment as we all know plays a pivotal role in The Gambia’s economy as it stimulates local capital investment and facilitates improvements in various sectors. 

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It is inevitable that some of the contract agreements with foreign corporations usually give rise to disputes, such as breaches of contract, intellectual property infringements or disagreements regarding trade policies. The course therefore equipped me with the necessary tools to resolve these disputes effectively, either through negotiation, mediation, or litigation. The course also strengthened my capacity and broadened my knowledge in common international trade regulations, cross cross-border transactions as it equipped me with new skills which will be very helpful towards my engagement in future negotiations and review of commercial contracts on behalf of the Government,” Counsel Jobe told The Standard.

Like many of his compatriots, Counsel Jobe feels the trainings in China have impact on him beyond just the knowledge. “It has changed my perception of the world in the sense that I have learnt to be more tolerable and open-minded. Among the numerous benefits of studying in China, the most important one is arguably the fact that many students from different cultures, different languages, and varying identities were brought together in a classroom as one community. The multicultural setting of the classroom taught us to become global citizens who can adapt to any environment. I met new friends from other cultures with different mindsets, beliefs, and social orientations. Finding myself among other participants with new cultures, the wonderment I felt did not only enlighten me on the diversity of humanity but also prepared me to effortlessly fit into any new culture or society I find myself in. As a frequent traveller, this is very useful to me.”

He added: “Personally, the lessons of the conference can be summarised in three keywords- friendship, solidarity and cooperation. The conference had a profound effect on how Asian-African states see international legal order.”

Dr. Prof. Lei Jiahui lectures at Tongji Medical College which attracts many international students, including several Gambians.

Speaking to The Standard on the integration of international students into the university, Dr. Prof. Lei Jiahui, from the Department of Pathogenic Biology at the School of Basic Medicine, said: “Our university’s measures to help international students integrate into campus and local life include: introducing the relevant school administration and campus culture in the orientation at the time of admission; introducing Chinese history and traditional culture in the course Chinese Culture for freshmen; organising various extracurricular activities for international students, such as Chinese poetry competitions and dragon boat races during the Dragon Boat Festival.”

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She said after integration, the students then acquire relevant knowledge in the world of medicine which can be used to solve various pressing health problems in their respective countries.

“Taking our course Human Parasitology as an example, we introduce China’s advanced experience and great achievements in the prevention and control of parasitic diseases, such as the ‘1-3-7’ strategy for malaria prevention and control, as well as the integrated control strategy of medical, agriculture and water conservancy in the control strategy of schistosomiasis.

“Due to the strong support of the government and the local control measures with the participation of all people, China was certified as a ‘malaria-free area’ by the WHO in 2021 and plans to eliminate schistosomiasis by 2030. This knowledge will help international students effectively prevent and treat these commonly neglected tropical diseases in Africa after their return,” she said.

For decades, Gambians flocked to education institutions in the West but with the unrivalled opportunities now being offered, China is becoming more appealing to the younger generation.

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