Rwandans Say Adieu to Français

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

KIGALI, Rwanda -- C'est la vie.

In another blow to the language of love, the Rwandan government has decided to change instruction in schools from French to English.

All government employees are now required to learn English, and everyone here from lawmakers to taxi drivers to students to businesspeople seems to believe that the usefulness of French, introduced by Belgian colonizers, is coming to an end.

"When you look at the French-speaking countries -- it's really just France, and a small part of Belgium and a small part of Switzerland," Theoneste Mutsindashyaka, Rwanda's state minister for education, said in English. "Most countries worldwide, they speak English. Even in China, they speak English. Even Belgium, if you go to the Flemish areas, they speak English, not French."

The decision, Rwandan officials say, was purely an economic one and had nothing to do with the country's souring relationship with France.

Rwanda has accused the French of arming the former Rwandan army and ethnic Hutu militias, even as they carried out the 1994 genocide. About 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days of planned, systematic violence.

The Rwandan government recently accused 33 senior French military and political officials of direct involvement in the genocide, demanding that they stand trial. Among those implicated is François Mitterand, president of France at the time of the genocide and now deceased.

French officials have denied responsibility, conceding only that "political" errors were made. In 2006, a French judge accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led the Tutsi rebel group that eventually stopped the genocide, of being involved in the downing of a plane carrying his predecessor, President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose death in April 1994 gave Hutu leaders the pretext to begin the genocide.

But Rwandan officials insist that their decision to promote English has nothing to do with knocking France.

"This is not about France," said Aloisea Inyumba, a senator and member of Kagame's ruling party. "This is about us. Introducing English is just being realistic. English is the language of business."

American and other English-speaking investors are pouring into Rwanda, whose East African trading partners are English and Swahili-speaking countries: Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Rwanda has applied for membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, the association of former British colonies.

As a minor bonus, Mutsindashyaka -- who is in charge of rolling out the English-language curriculum for 2.6 million students and 50,000 teachers -- said he was happily surprised to find that English textbooks are far cheaper than French ones. A fourth-grade English math book costs 70 cents, for instance, compared with $4 for the French version.

Most Rwandans speak the local Kinyarwanda language or French. Fewer than 5 percent speak English, although that is set to change. Local English-language schools are filling up with students. It's common to find taxi drivers with French-English dictionaries in their glove compartments. Elected officials are dutifully leading the way, sprinkling their speeches with English words, often blended with Kinyarwanda. The other day, a member of parliament spoke of "gupuromotinga," or promoting, English.

"For English classes, we might have 50 students," said Susan Muhude, a teacher at the Baptist English Teaching Center here. "For French, there are very few, perhaps five."

Down the street, past a new building for Blue Financial Services and the beaten-down Touba Bijouterie jewelers, the shelves of the A to Z Book Centre are jammed with English titles. They range from motivational tomes by Anthony Robinson to romances by Danielle Steele.

Besides instructional books, the French titles are few -- mostly cookbooks, such as "Les Vins de la Vigne á la Table," and esoterica, such as "Inventaire des Oiseaux de France," a catalogue of birds.

Shopkeeper Silas Rwagataraka said he is expecting more customers now that the government is promoting English.

"The benefits of learning English are immense," he said, adding diplomatically, "But French, it's not useless at all -- if you have both languages, you have a better chance of making it."


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