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Rwanda moves to English, drops French

Students adapt but teachers struggle as Rwanda starts speaking English.

Rwanda education, English
Rwanda has started speaking and teaching in English as the country drops French and adopts English as its officials language. Here, two Rwandan students on their way to school. (Jon Rosen/GlobalPost)

KIGALI, Rwanda — Two years ago, accounting teacher Innocent Kwitonda arrived at school to a shock.

According to an abrupt government decree, teachers at public schools throughout Rwanda were to begin instructing students in English — a language that just a fraction of them spoke with proficiency.

Kwitonda, a French-speaker like most of his peers, had studied English as a foreign language but had hardly mastered it. In Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, most schools had long been taught in French and early grades conducted in the country’s native tongue, Kinyarwanda.

Over the last two years, Rwanda’s schools have undergone a lightning quick linguistic transformation.

In January 2009, students in selected grades began to study in English. This month, the “Senior 6” students who sat for their final high school exams were the last to do so in French. January 2011, when the new school year begins, all public students at the primary, secondary and university levels will be taught in English, whether or not they — or their teachers — are prepared.

“It is difficult,” Kwitonda told GlobalPost, his English passable but marked with awkward intonations. “They have given us this system too suddenly. There are teachers that give notes in English but continue to teach in French. But we try our best. We understand the need to shift.”

Rwanda is determined to attract foreign investment and proponents of the move to English say the policy makes practical sense. A member of the East African Community since 2007, Rwanda relies on increasing trade and movement of labor with Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania — its larger, more developed anglophone neighbors.

Further afield, said Eric Niyongabo, Rwanda’s acting director general of education, English is the language of the global business world — one in which Rwanda strives to be competitive.

“When we look worldwide, English is spoken more than French,” he said. “Our children are going to travel the world, import and export. This is an economic issue. We don’t want them being isolated.”

Yet to some, Rwanda’s language policy reflects broader geopolitical considerations. Though a Belgian colony from World War I until its 1962 independence, Rwanda was long viewed by Paris as a stronghold of French-speaking Africa with which France has held close, often paternalistic relations in the post-colonial era.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Rwanda’s Hutu-supremacist leader Juvenal Habyarimana enjoyed particularly strong ties with the administration of French President Francois Mitterrand. The Habyarimana regime received a steady flow of arms from Paris right through the 1994 genocide — the carefully-planned slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu that capped a four year civil war against Uganda-bred, English-speaking rebels led by current president Paul Kagame.

With France the patron of his former enemy, Kagame’s relationship with the Elysee Palace has long been testy, as his country has drifted further into the Anglophone sphere.

Today, the United Kingdom and the United States are Rwanda's largest bilateral donors and last year Rwanda followed Mozambique as just the second nation lacking British colonial ties to join the Commonwealth. The United States boasts a gleaming $80 million embassy in the Rwandan capital, while the former French cultural center is a decaying emblem of vanished post-colonial grandeur: gates shackled, grass overgrown, and paint chipping from its concrete facade.

History, meanwhile, continues to divide Kigali and Paris. In 2006, Rwanda cut diplomatic ties with France after a French judge accused Kagame and other members of his Rwandan Patriotic Front of orchestrating the plane crash that killed Habyarimana — the event that immediately triggered the genocide.