Parlons Anglais! Why French is very nearly mort in football-loving Rwanda

Monday January 10 2011

Shyaka Kanuma is chief editor of the Rwanda Focus, a Kigali weekly. Photo/FILE

Shyaka Kanuma is chief editor of the Rwanda Focus, a Kigali weekly. Photo/FILE 


The way things are going, it may not be long before the French language suffers a total demise in Rwanda.

Almost everyone speaks Kinyarwanda and English in public offices.

Very few speak French anymore. Not even those Rwandans who went to school in Francophone systems in the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and countries farther afield.

French may still be listed as one of Rwanda’s official languages, but most Rwandans have seemingly made the choice not to conduct their affairs in it anymore.

The only offices where you still find people using French, or documents in French, are in a few private sector companies or NGOs.

No one has conducted a scientific study of the rate at which French is eroding here, but anecdotal evidence is plenty.


The mantra now is: You want a job, your English had better be up to scratch. You want to conduct international business, your English had better be good. French is an added advantage, but these days that advantage is required less and less.

Ever since the Rwanda Patriotic Front took power, after Rwanda’s 1994 catastrophe, the country has sought to re-imagine itself in many ways.

The leaders of the RPF and many members of its administration went to school in neighbouring English-speaking Uganda.

It was only natural that the new regime begin conducting official business in English. France’s animosity towards the “Anglophone” RPF only added to the government’s resolve to turn Rwanda to English.    

Even Rwandans of different backgrounds from the “Ugandans” saw where things were drifting from day one of the RPF administration.

A direct result of the first speech in English by Paul Kagame (at the time chairman of the RPF and vice president of Rwanda) was that people with no prior proficiency in English stampeded to register in the few English language evening classes available at the time.

Since then, these have sprouted up everywhere. Kenyans and Ugandans smelling opportunities in teaching English have been scrambling for the Ministry of Education documents necessary to set up language schools.

Now English has become the language of instruction in Rwanda’s entire education system.

Just recently, Kigali brought in 1,000 English language instructors mainly from Uganda and Kenya, to upgrade the English skills of Rwanda’s primary and secondary school teachers.

Other universal factors are doing much to complete Rwanda’s U-turn from being a Francophone to an Anglophone country.

You have DSTV — which came to Rwanda during the RPF administration — and the most popular programmes it brings to subscribers’ screens are in English.

Every sports enthusiast, from the upscale professional to the wheelbarrow pusher, seems to be a fan of either Arsenal or “ManU” or Chelsea or Liverpool, and they want to follow the commentary, which is in English.

The “cool” young men and women want to know what JayZ or Fifty Cent or Beyonce are rapping about.

The older, more affluent women do not want someone to interpret to them what Oprah is saying. Now they are taking English lessons.

The average Rwandan looks at Tusker Project Fame and it is in English; they want to know what the judges are saying about their beloved Alpha or Gaelle or other Rwandan contestants.

Popular cultural forces have been making the Kagame administration’s task of turning English into the main foreign language in Rwanda much easier than it would be if Rwanda were already English speaking and someone wanted to turn it French.

France has no answer to Hollywood or the NBA with its LeBron Jameses and Kobe Bryants and others; it has no answer to all the combined powerful influences the Western Anglophone world can and does unleash — for example, or the British royal family!

The assumption has almost become fact that the only reason Kagame and the RPF have been steering Rwanda down the Anglophone course – joining the British Commonwealth and the East African Union as an added measure to learning English – is because they want to snub France for its support of the regime of former president Juvenal Habyarimana.

There may be some truth to that, but the reasoning ignores the entirely pragmatic benefits that accrue from using the world’s lingua franca.

The Kagame administration’s decision to turn Rwanda Anglophone was, I think motivated more by the fact they would extract the most advantage in the global community of nations by speaking the global language.

Shyaka Kanuma is chief editor of the Rwanda Focus, a Kigali weekly