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.
The Kagame government, which blames the assassination on extremists within Habyarimana’s government, restored relations with France last year, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Kigali this past February. Still, the relationship remains shaky: In March, a team of French experts is due to release the findings of a recent investigation into the cause of the 16-year-old crash, which could spark a new diplomatic row if the report does not sit well with Rwanda's leadership.
Whatever the outcome, it will not change Rwanda’s Anglophone trajectory — or the challenges it poses to Rwandan educators.
Nearly 90 percent of Rwanda’s 58,000 primary and secondary school teachers are in need of some form of English training, said John Simpson, an adviser with the British Council attached to Rwanda’s Ministry of Education. During the upcoming holiday break, he said, teachers will undergo five weeks of intensive language instruction, assisted by more than 600 English specialists from neighboring Uganda. After that they’ll be supplied with self-directed learning materials, and have access to school based mentoring programs.
“By 2012, we hope all teachers can have at least an intermediate level of proficiency,” Simpson said. “That will be a way stage. By 2015 our goal is for them to be ‘very proficient.’”
In the interim, many expect the going to be tough, a reality that continues to spark language policy criticism. Though most Rwandans are loath to challenge Kagame’s government, dissenters say the shift to English gives an unfair advantage students among the current Anglophone minority — most of whom are children of comparatively affluent Tutsi that returned from the diaspora when the RPF seized power after the genocide. Kagame, who fled to Uganda with his family as a child, is English-speaking, as is most of his inner circle.
When asked, accounting teacher Kwitonda admits that students already strong in English have seen their grades improve since the overhaul started. Yet most French-speaking pupils have adapted well, he says — in general far better than their teachers.
Christian Kwizera, 17, is one student that, while Francophone, doesn’t mind the change.
“For us it’s not a problem,” he told GlobalPost, speaking in near-fluent English.
“It’s good to study in English. But to forget about French? I don’t know. French is a good language. We should study both. Then we can travel and do business anywhere in the world.”