Rwanda: the switch will have a ripple effect

By PETER MWAURA posted Friday, October 17 2008 at 17:19, in the Daily Nation:

Last week, Rwanda officially dropped French and adopted English as the official language of communication and teaching.

The country’s nursery schoolchildren will no longer sing Il y a Sept Jours à Semaine; they will sing There Are Seven Days in a Week and London Bridge is Falling Down.

Information technology students will stop referring to the computer as ordinateur and the mouse as un souris.

The transformation is more than linguistic. It has the potential of creating ripples throughout the region.


The switch will have a ripple effect on neighbouring Burundi, now the only member of the East Africa Community still Francophone. It is probably just a question of time before Burundi also says adieu to French so as to take full advantage of its being a member of an English-speaking trading bloc.

The effect could spread to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which borders Rwanda in the west.

And in the long run, the ripples could reach even Dakar, the Senegalese capital that has traditionally been Africa’s “little Paris”. Senegal and a growing number of Francophone countries in West Africa are increasingly looking up to the English-speaking world, particularly the United States.

The French built their colonial (and linguistic) empire in Africa on a premise increasingly proving untenable in today’s world. They defined their power in the international arena around the idea of spreading civilisation — mission civilisatrice — that became the official reason for carving out territories in Africa.

Thus, they sought to increase their influence abroad by spreading the French culture.

In West Africa, where they had most of their colonies, they sought to bring up Africans to be French and the colonies as an “integral part of the mother country”.


Rwanda is a member of the Francophonie, so why has it ditched French? The official reason given is business.

Trade and Industry minister Vincent Karega dismisses French as a language spoken “in France, some parts of West Africa, parts of Canada and Switzerland”, while English “has emerged as a backbone for growth and development around the globe.”


Kigali accused France of participating in the genocide, expelled the French ambassador and closed down the French cultural centre, international school and Radio France Internationale (RFI).

However, the potential consequences and spin-offs of the diplomatic tiff go beyond the Great Lakes country’s borders.


Snake Oil Baron said...

Strange, I thought that after Mobutu was overthrown in the former Zaire that one of the new rulers decided soon after to switch to English. Was that decision reversed, never implemented or just a rumor?

Unfrench said...

I posted an excerpt from TOWARDS AN ECOLOGY OF WORLD LANGUAGES on this blog here that deals with that topic. Joseph-Désiré Kabila did decide to switch the DRC to English after toppling Mobutu but reversed that decision later because he didn't have the means to implement it at that stage. The English language will certainly supplant French in the end, but it can't happen overnight.