French is out of fashion in Rwanda

English replaced French as the official language of instruction in schools in 2008

Reuters/ Getty

When Governor General Michaëlle Jean visits Rwanda next week she might have to bite her tongue about the country’s new language policy. After a century of close ties to France and Belgium, the East African nation is phasing out français and embracing English. “English is becoming more and more dominant in the world,” says Arnaud Nkusi, anchor of Rwanda’s state-owned TV news. “It’s all about business. You have to move with the rest of the world.”

Jean’s trip will mark the first state visit to Rwanda from a Commonwealth country since it joined that 54-state organization late last year. But cozying up to Britain and its former colonies is only the latest chapter in Rwanda’s move to English. Many say it all started with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when members of the country’s Hutu ethnic group killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The country blames France for helping arm the instigators, and then not doing enough to stop the carnage.

In the wake of the genocide, Rwanda’s main donor became the United States. Meanwhile, thousands of exiles returned to their homeland from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda—neighbouring English-speaking countries where many Rwandans picked up the language. Then, in 2006, a French judge dropped a bombshell. He accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, of helping start the genocide because of his alleged complicity in the rocket attack of April 6, 1994, that killed Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana—the spark for the massacre. Furious, Kagame shut down the French Embassy, kicked out the ambassador, ordered Radio France Internationale off the air in Rwanda, and closed the local French cultural centre.
Two years later, in 2008, Kagame announced that English—which became one of Rwanda’s official languages in 1994—would replace French as the official language of instruction in the country’s schools. In the wake of that momentous step, thousands of Rwandan schoolteachers were fired because they couldn’t teach the new language.

According to Nkusi, there has been very little public resistance to the government’s pro-English campaign. Kagame has a firm grip on power and Rwandans are not known as protesters. In fact, most citizens are reluctant to give their opinions even in private. But during an interview with a group of Rwandan teacher-trainers, some of them open up. “French flows in my veins,” says Ladislas Nkundabanyanga. “My father taught me French and my friends all speak French.” Nowadays, though, he knows kindergarten students who don’t understand the word “bonjour.” As a result, he’s convinced the French language in Rwanda is doomed. Nkundabanyanga’s colleague, Beatrice Namango, agrees. The new policy, she says, is “like telling me to keep quiet. It’s stopping me from talking.”

The teacher-trainers’ boss is a Canadian named Mark Thiessen, from Williams Lake, B.C. He likens the slow demise of French in Rwanda to the death of Aboriginal languages in Canada. “Slowly, French in Rwanda will disappear,” Thiessen says. “It might take one or two generations, but it will.”

Nkusi says he’s partial to French, too, but he sees the language change as an economic necessity. “French is the language of the heart,” he says, “but English is the language of work.” And Rwandans are working hard to show they’re competitive in an emerging African market. Every building in the country looks like it just got a fresh coat of paint, and the GDP is growing by an average of five per cent a year. “The country’s wealth is not in the soil, it’s in the minds of its citizens,” says Nkusi. “The leadership is smart enough to know that and develop an information technology sector like India’s.”

Nkusi also parrots a popular line of Kagame’s. “Rwanda isn’t becoming unilingual,” he says, “it’s simply making room for new languages.” Rwanda’s capital only has one private French school left, but a Chinese school just opened up, too. Besides, Nkusi adds, Rwanda is now a member of both the Commonwealth and la Francophonie, the organization of French states—like Canada. Michaëlle Jean might like to highlight that, too.

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