The day Rwanda Became an English-Speaking Country

In addition to Kinyarwanda, his mother tongue, my grandfather used to tell me that he was fluent in French, German, English and Swahili, and, of course, Latin. According to him, he managed to learn all these languages thanks to being a chief. Since my schoolmates in primary school had difficulty believing this, I used to take them to see my grandfather. demonstrate his talents as a polyglot. They found him fascinating, and me, and this made me feel very proud. Some years later, I realised that my good-natured grandfather was a such prolific writer and speaker of Kinyarwanda, a language that is rich in metaphore which he helped me master all the nuances. On the other hand, for French, English and Swahili, I found it better to rely on my teachers!

When the Germans came to Rwanda, they did not impose German. They used German as a language of communication. On the other hand, Swahili, the language of Zanzibar, was much more commonly used than Kinyarwanda. Many a Rwandan interpreter was trained for this purpose, and Mwami [King] Musinga learned Swahili, which bears some resemblance to Kinyarwanda. After the First World War, French was introduced by Belgium, the new colonial power. Most of the White Fathers who had arrived in Rwanda about 15 years earlier were French-speaking. They are the ones who taught French. This is how Rwanda joined the Francophone countries of the world, the ones using French as the common language. But there is more to the French-speaking world than meets the eye. For some, being French-speaking is a struggle, a struggle against the domination of English. It’s a thin line between a struggle and outright war. Some French politicians crossed this thin line in 1990 by characterizing the RPF attack against the Habyarimana regime as a war by English-speakers from Uganda against a member country of France’s pré-carré francophone. For them, this justified France’s unconditional support for the dictator, Habyarimana.[1]

After the genocide of the Tutsi and the return to Rwanda of Rwandans who were English-speaking, Rwanda made a conscious effort to remain consensual and to teach both French and English in its schools. Universities devised programmes to help students improve their language skills in French or English, depending on the case. Today, one realises that bilingual university education has not produced the expected results. A disproportionately large number of students graduate from university without mastering either language. Communication is the foundation of education. Our children have the unique opportunity to live in a country which has the potential to educate them in two of the world’s most important languages. We must not allow this valuable resource to go to waste.

However, the Minister of Education, Daphrose Gahakwa, recently declared that “courses in Rwanda’s schools and universities shall henceforth be taught in English, this being among the means for Rwanda to join the Commonwealth”(Source AFP). That is preposterous! The majority of the teachers in Rwanda are French-speaking and are unable to teach in English (regardless of whether they have attended mandatory English classes) and a mere 1.8% of Rwanda’s population speaks English. According to a Rwanda government report, "though the French language is equally spoken by few people (…), these are more evenly distributed over the national territory.. "(Source: census of 2002).

Rwanda is in a privileged position in the region in that it has qualified engineers, professors, researchers, etc. that are fluent in both English and French. Many of them attended the world’s best universities. French-speaking Rwandans have returned by the thousands from Burundi, Congo, Belgium, West Africa, Quebec, France, Switzerland, to join the ones who were already in Rwanda. Many of them have joined the teaching profession. Are they now being told that they serve no purpose?

Is it reasonable to take a decision with such serious implications for the future of our country without consulting the people through parliament and without holding a national debate? Did the coalition led by the RPF submit this radical programme to the voters before the latest parliamentary elections? Is joining the Commonwealth so important to Rwanda as to warrant taking such an important decision precipitously and without consulting the people? Could this decision be perceived as favouring Rwanda’s English-speaking population?

Let us hope that in the future Rwanda will not seek to join the CPLP, Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries...

I recommend this article: "Rwanda to switch from French to English in schools" by Chris McGreal in The Guardian, October, 14 2008.


[1] "The whole syndrome, which for the sake of convenience we could call “the Fachoda syndrome”; is still very much a part of French political thinking today. And it is the main reason -and pratically the only one - why Paris intervened so quickly and so deeply in the growing Rwandese crisis.” [Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, page 105, C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd; 2Rev Ed edition (21 May 1998).