MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) -- A new language class is providing an opportunity for Liberians to learn Mandarin as China expands its economic presence in the West African country.
China is heavily engaged in post-war Liberia, rebuilding roads with funding from the World Bank and running hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
And a Chinese firm, China Union, became the largest ever investor in Liberia when it signed a $2.6 billion agreement earlier this year to go into the iron ore business in a town about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Monrovia.
"Traditionally, we Liberians are closer to the Americans than we are to the Chinese, but the irony is that the Chinese are more open to us than the Americans are," said 57-year-old John K. Cooper, who works for a local youth development center and is one of 15 students in the Mandarin class that began this week.
"Americans know and have technologies, but they are not yet ready to bring them to Africa. The Chinese are doing just that," he added.
Africa's trade with China reached more than $100 billion in 2008 and has multiplied by 10 since 2001, according to the African Economic Outlook.
There are some 23 Chinese language schools across Africa set up with Chinese financial support and more than 200 worldwide, according to Martyn Davies, executive director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
"We feel a little bit guilty at not being able to help Liberians to speak our language," Chinese Ambassador to Liberia Zhou Yuxiao said.
The new course in English-speaking Liberia is being held at Samuel Doe Stadium, which currently houses the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
"Chinese are here in construction work, etc.," said Macaulay Paykue, director of press at Liberia's Ministry of Youth and Sports. "If we have to deal with these people and they have to deal with us, it is only prudent that we understand each other."
Liberia was ravaged by civil wars for years until 2003. The drawn-out conflict that began in 1989 left about 200,000 people dead and displaced half the country's population of 3 million. The country - created to settle freed American slaves in 1847 - is still struggling to maintain a fragile peace with the help of U.N. peacekeepers.