“One language is poverty, two languages is wealth” – Antoine Mugesera (Rwandan historian)
More than ever, the world is speaking English: language teachers are in demand around the world, and businesses are expected to trade in English, whether it’s their native language or not. The central African nation, Rwanda, is embracing English in all its importance.
Claver Yisa, Minister of Education, believes using English is “a way to make Rwanda equal”.
So much so, English became the official language of Rwandan education in 2008. While many questioned the political undertones of this decision, the move to English was intended to strengthen Rwanda’s links to English-speaking east African neighbours (and trading partners), including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
It’s worth remembering that a generation of Tutsis learned English growing up in exile Uganda and Tanzania during the 1994 genocide.
FRENCH: ‘THE LANGUAGE OF THE COLONIZER’?
According to Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, despite moving towards English, Rwanda doesn’t intend to walk away from French and its prevalence in society.
She even hopes to become leader of the International Organisation of La Francophonie, which is the world association of French-speaking nations. This suggests the strained relationship between Rwanda and France, as a result of the genocide, is beginning to blossom.
Furthermore, French President Emmanuel Macron was only 15 when the genocide occurred, so it’s impossible for Rwanda to consider him complicit in the atrocities, like the older French political generation.
French news, TV and literature are popular. Places at the French immersion school in Kigali, which reopened in 2010, are oversubscribed. French has also been reintroduced to primary school curriculum as a foreign language.
Antoine Mugesera, a Rwandan historian, believes the French language is “a heritage that we must carefully protect” because Rwandan historical records are written in French rather than English. Losing the French language would potentially erase certain aspects of Rwandan identity.
Readiness to embrace English internationally and reluctance to reject French suggests Rwanda will become a multilingual culture within a generation. Mugesera is excited about this, “we are at the crossroads of both worlds. One language is poverty, two languages is wealth. We have to keep both, that would be a huge asset for us.”
KINYARWANDA: RWANDA’S MOTHER TONGUE
Whether the next generation are learning in French or English, Yisa realises that one even older language will stand the test of time: “We have a common language: Kinyarwanda. This is really a rare benefit. Cabinet meetings are in Kinyarwanda because some ministers speak English and some speak French. Anyone going to a government office can speak Kinyarwanda.”
Is Rwanda’s evolving multilingual culture pioneering? Will this inspire other African cultures to embrace every language of their history?