From Francophone to Anglophone
The Rwandese speak English. Sure, they were a Belgian colony. Sure, the secondary language used to be French. But there has been a major turnaround, even since 2006.
I used to be entirely reliant on my French. My work was in French. Conversations at the buvettes over beers were in French (with some Kinyarwanda). Hotel reservations were in French. Meetings with officials were in French. I ordered food and drinks in French.
But that was in 2006.
Since then, there has been a major push to make Rwanda a trilingual country: Kinyarwanda, English, and French. From primary school, students can opt to learn English or French, and most, it would seem, are choosing English. Rural Rwandese officials, many of whom speak very little English and fluent French, will often opt to conduct meetings in English. The service industry outside Kigali is also ramping up its English skills.
As a result, in restaurants, bars, hotels, and the like, it is generally English that is spoken, not French. And when I choose to be obstinate, and greet people with a “Bonjour,” I almost always receive a “Hello” in reply. In one case, I greeted a female police officer with “Bonjour,” and she responded, snippily, “I don’t speak French.” She was clearly offended. I switched to my American English to show her that I meant well.
How did this happen—and how did it happen so fast?
My theory is that it’s largely due to culture. The Rwandese, in general, respect authority. President Paul Kagame is beloved by the vast majority of the population, and—surprise, surprise—speaks English. I have heard that he doesn’t speak a word of French (though this may also be for political reasons, which I will discuss). President Kagame is incredibly sharp—he recognizes that English is the language of commerce and technology, which essentially means that it’s the language the country needs to advance its development. One of my friends, who is Francophone but is taking English classes, said to me the other day (in French, no less): “What have the French and the Belgians done for us? Phoot. Nothing. Why do you think Kigali is growing so fast and Rwanda is developing these last years? Because we realized that the British and the Americans help us so much more.”
Hence, the push for English. And the people, who understand Kagame’s intention, have taken up the task.
There’s a lot of history behind the question of language in Rwanda. Many attribute a large part of it to the genocide. Before the war, Rwanda was a Francophone country. It was the language of the educated, and the diplomatic language of the government. The government had strong ties to France, who provided financial as well as military support. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, the strength of the Uganda-exiled Tutsi population’s rebel forces grew, and as they made small and large sorties across Rwanda’s northern border, the French came to the aid of the weak Rwandan military, fending off the Tutsi rebel forces. The French, it is said, viewed Rwanda as a battleground for the survival of the French language in East Africa, and the victory of the Tutsi forces would mean a victory for English, since the populations in Uganda learned English.
Of course, after a lot of bloodshed and continued intervention by the French, the 1994 victors were the Tutsi rebel forces (Rwandan Patriotic Forces, or RPF). A new government was installed, and the French nightmare came true—the evolution to English began.
In the past couple of years, the language question has continued to be a prominent one. In 2006, the Rwandan government launched a commission to investigate France's role in the genocide. Shortly thereafter, Jean-Louis Bruguière, a French human rights judge, declared that President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down under orders from Paul Kagame and the RPF, which essentially meant that the RPF was responsible for starting the genocide. Following his controversial declaration, the French diplomatic mission was ordered to leave Rwanda. They now operate out of neighboring Burundi. The French school was closed, as was the French-Rwandan cultural center.
The President has taken this one step further, by officially requesting that Rwanda join the British Commonwealth. Apparently this has never been requested by a country that was not a British colony. I suspect it’s more symbolic than anything else—it’s like Rwanda is officially throwing a little extra salt on France's wounds. And given France’s role in the war, you can’t really blame them.
Of course, there are controversial undercurrents from anti-government elements. Some believe that English is the language of a Tutsi government—a government regarded as Tutsi primarily because of its head. My sense is that this is a small minority. Otherwise, some French speakers have told me that they feel left behind—the country has moved so quickly that they have not felt able to catch up. Whereas linguistically, they had been the elite, this is now no longer the case.
My language advice? Bring your French dictionary if you would like. But I’ve learned the hard way that unless you can speak Kinyarwanda, start every conversation in English. If they tell you that they don’t understand, then use your French. Because you’re much less likely to offend.