Of beauty queens, Kinyarwanda and Rwanda’s education system

Videos of Miss Rwanda 2014 contestants have made the rounds on social media and messenger apps like WhatsApp: these painful-to-watch videos feature the beauty queens butchering English and French in their responses to judges’ questions.
Aline Akintore
Aline Akintore

Videos of Miss Rwanda 2014 contestants have made the rounds on social media and messenger apps like WhatsApp: these painful-to-watch videos feature the beauty queens butchering English and French in their responses to judges’ questions.

Their inability to express themselves in these languages is only matched by their failure to construct comprehensible answers to the asked questions. Maybe they didn’t understand the questions. Maybe they did, but couldn’t answer in these foreign languages. Either way, the pageant took a blow in its goal to portray the pageant as bigger than a physical affair.

It is unfortunate that these girls have become objects of ridicule and amusement because of their incompetence in foreign languages, which may say nothing of their intelligence (maybe even more unfortunate is the fact that Miss Rwanda features these foreign languages at all).

These videos bothered me in so many ways but my biggest problem is the fact that these girls are from some of our best schools. Shall we fault the selection process? (Good public speaking skills were a requirement).

I prefer to go for the jugular: our education system…

Unlike some of our neighbours, Rwanda is lucky to be unified by one mother tongue. Why then is instruction in schools done in English or French? We are acquainted with the importance of language as more than a communication tool, but also as an integral part of our identity, culture and social integration, so why wouldn’t it feature prominently in education as well?

I can smell the suspect questions from a mile away: How shall Rwanda compete in the global marketplace without a firm grasp of international languages? Do you expect chemistry to be taught in Kinyarwanda?

My answers are limited but I think we can look to countries like Sweden, China and Russia for inspiration – these countries teach foreign languages with national language proficiency examinations but still preserve education for their native languages.

Also, if Cheik Anta Diop of Senegal could translate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into Wolof, why do we think it is impossible?

Let us also be real, most Rwandans are employed in the informal sector and for the most part will have little use for, say, French – even if they do, they are better off equipped with skills than with neither skill nor language.

Scholars have termed teaching in a language that students and teachers don’t speak as ‘submersion’ – holding them under water without teaching them how to swim. The lack of proficiency in both teachers and students alike diminishes the value of learning as demonstrated by the weak strands of ‘biliteracy’ and ‘bilingualism’ in Rwanda; sample a handful of writings by Rwandan university students and you will note that writing in English, French and even Kinyarwanda is mostly sub-standard.

Education is more than memorisation of subject material. Education requires immersion, participation, interaction and negotiation by student and teacher, resulting in the grasp of foundational concepts and cognitive development; it also makes it possible for teachers to accurately assess student learning.

This means learning and understanding doesn’t have to wait for the student to learn English; once basic concepts have been internalised in Kinyarwanda, oral and writing skills in English can be learned, with learned literacy and cognitive skills being translated into the second language.

Let me not be misunderstood to be saying that we eliminate foreign languages from the curricula, I am merely lobbying for a bilingual schooling method that features Kinyarwanda as the main language of instruction, leaving room for foreign languages to be taught systematically such that students transfer skills from Kinyarwanda to, say, English, having acquired the foundational understanding and participation in class.

Beyond class work, command in language builds confidence, self-esteem and identity that increase motivation and, more importantly, creativity. Without the frustration of having to cram material and not participate in class activities, students learn to stir their creative juices, express themselves and construct cogent arguments – beauty queens inclusive.

I am not claiming that this is the golden bullet, but I know that it will do a lot to empower Rwandans by increasing access and improving quality of education; Kinyarwanda will increase participation of parents, bridge the learning gap for girls (with little time to muster English) and valorize our mother tongue and culture. It will also force us to develop content in our language and open doors for scholarly undertakings in different fields.

Remember those wise words by the late Nelson Mandela? “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head, but if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.

Maybe with this, our beauty queens will be able to constructively respond to questions regarding infrastructure and development in Gisenyi. Maybe…

Twitter: @rwandalavender


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