As Anglo exiles take reins, Rwanda bids French adieu
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Oct 17 19:24:40 UTC 2008
As Anglo exiles take reins, Rwanda bids French adieu
October 17, 2008
KIGALI -- In Bourbon Coffee, Kigali's hippest gathering spot,
well-dressed young Rwandans lounge on the comfy couches, eat burgers
and chat. They speak in Kinyarwanda, they speak in French, but more
and more these days, when they call out to friends, when they order
lunch, when they flirt - they speak in English. It's all about English
in Rwanda these days: Land at the airport, and the immigration staff
say "Welcome to Kigali!" Grab a taxi, and the driver says, "Where to?"
The road signs are in English, the government ministries that dot the
hills around the capital are labelled in English, the beer billboards
and cellphone ads and condom commercials are in English. One of the
most popular newspapers in town, and some of the most successful radio
stations, are English.
And that's all a little surprising, since Rwanda was colonized by
French-speaking Belgians, is a long-standing member of the
Francophonie and runs its schools in French. Or rather, it did until
last week, when Kigali announced that, after the first few years in
Kinyarwanda, students would be taught in English - sealing the
decision that English, not French, would be the language of the
country's future. It's a bold move - perhaps the first time that a
country ever switched languages (and all of the cultural and political
associations that go with them) overnight.
The change had been brewing for a while, and it has its roots in
Rwanda's tragic recent history. Around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate
Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists and their supporters in the
1994 genocide, which was ended after 100 days by a Tutsi-dominated
rebel force led by Paul Kagame. He quickly took office as the new
president, and surrounded himself with advisers and ministers who are,
like him, Tutsis whose families had fled previous episodes of
ethnic-based slaughter to the neighbouring countries of Uganda and
Tanzania, and so grew up as English-speakers. They were profoundly
angry with France, whose military had trained and armed the
Interahamwe, as the Hutu militia was known, who carried out the
Just three months after the end of the genocide, they made English an
official language - even though very few people in Rwanda then spoke
it. It joined Kinyarwanda, which remains the mother tongue of Rwandans
of all classes, and French, introduced by the Belgians 90 years
But hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees came home in the years
that followed, and many took up new positions of influence in the
public sector or business. French-speaking Rwandans began to learn
English; private English tutorial companies sprang up all over Kigali
and the other major cities. Then the country's leading technical
institute announced that English would be its primary language. Rwanda
joined the East African Community - a zone of political and trade
co-operation that includes English-speaking Kenya and Uganda - and
applied to join the Commonwealth.
The decision about the country's schools is simply the latest, most
decisive and formal step. "Look at the advantages of Rwanda being
strong in English," enthused Yisa Claver, director of policy in the
"English is now the business language. Rwanda is trying to be a
knowledge-based economy. English is the language of research. We're
trying to be a regional hub of ICT [information and communications
technology] and English is the language of ICT. Rwanda is now in the
East African Community, where the official language is English. Rwanda
is trying to have a service industry as a priority - we don't have
diamonds and minerals and all those things, we want tourism and all
those guys speak English . . . China! The World Bank! The UN! Their
first language is English. For God's sake, this is a noble decision."
Many tech-and-media-savvy young Rwandans had already decided that
their future lies in English. "I grew up speaking French," said
Jean-Pierre Niyitanga, 25, who manages a media training project. His
parents still speak to him in Kinyarwanda. But these days, he goes by
J.P. and when he chats at Bourbon Coffee, it's in English.
Yet many people detect more than practical motives for the language
shift. "I think it's politics," said Hajji Sadiq, a Kigali tax
consultant in his 50s. Far more people speak English than French, and
there would be no reason to make the abrupt official change if a
larger point were not being made, he said.
The French Cultural Centre in Rwanda has been shuttered and abandoned
- like the French embassy - since relations with the country were
severed in 2006, amid competing allegations about France's role in the
genocide and a move by France to indict Mr. Kagame for the murder of
the previous president.
"Some people will believe this is a continuation of the deterioration
of the relationship between France and Rwanda, that Rwanda is 'doing
whatever it can to humiliate France,' " acknowledged Jean-Baptiste
Rusine, the director of the language department at the Kigali
Institute of Science and Technology.
Mr. Claver, of the Education Ministry, firmly denied that. "English is
not the end result - it's an instrument to get better business, and if
French would do this for us we'd [be teaching in French] - but we're
not getting anything out of French."
Across from Mr. Claver's office at the ministry sits a room full of
British and American advisers from the World Bank and Britain's aid
agency, who are helping to rewrite Rwanda's curriculum.
Regardless of motives, the language shift will be complex and costly.
"The number one challenge is the number of qualified English language
trainers. Who is going to train the pedagogic and educational
population?" Prof. Rusine asked, speaking excellent English in an
accent with hints of Inspector Clouseau. "What of our professors of
social or applied sciences - they've got PhDs, yet although they can
communicate in English, they will have great difficulty to teach in
it. So the policy is there but in practice the shift may come
Officially French will continue to be taught as a school subject but
will no longer be a medium of instruction; in practice, only a small
number of teachers can now teach in English. Prof. Rusine also noted
that the great majority of Rwandans are subsistence farmers who are
literate only in Kinyarwanda, if anything, and speak neither colonial
Mr. Sadiq, the businessman, who learned French at school and knows no
English, said he would like to learn, so he can deal with the
foreigners pouring in here - but he fears the policy switch is going
to produce a nation that speaks neither language well, adding parallel
English and French instruction would have been a better approach.
But Mr. Claver said that is simply not feasible for Rwanda.
"Maybe you Canadians don't see the need [to switch from one to the
other]," he said. "But it's very expensive to have both."
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