"we're not getting anything out of French"

STEPHANIE NOLEN From Friday's Globe and Mail
October 16, 2008 at 8:08 PM EDT

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. t'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 genocide.

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 earlier.

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 Education Ministry. “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. “Of course,” he said.

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 gradually.”

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 language. “They will only start to notice the shift in a year or two, since education is now free and even the peasant's son or daughter will start to speak English.”

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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