ON SATURDAY night, the search for Miss Rwanda 2014 came to an end with nineteen-year-old Colombe Akiwacu beating 14 other contestants who made it to the grand finale. Akiwacu was crowned by the genial Aurore Mutesi Kayibanda who wore the Miss Rwanda crown with elegance and class since she won it in 2012. On the night, nothing came close to the buzz that surrounded the preliminary phase of identifying the finalists of this year’s pageantry.
Recently, a friend sent me a video clip that was making the rounds on social media. It showed a young lady aspiring to represent the Southern Province in the pageant. The woman, barely in her 20s, had great difficulty expressing herself in French. The clip was supposed to be very funny, and for many it was, given the extent to which it was passed around. It all smelt mob action. To imagine that all this was for no other ‘crime’ than ‘butchering’ a foreign language! Some went as far as providing this as evidence of Rwanda’s poor education system.
However, amidst all the hype, a few important points were missed. Consider this: what if the young woman spoke fluent French or English for that matter. Would that, in and of itself, necessarily mean that she has had a very good education? I don’t think so. Neither would it prove that Rwanda had a strong education system. An education system is not a language school; it doesn’t just churn out linguists.
What is worrying is that this logic that equates the mastery of foreign languages to high-quality education is very deeply rooted. In its crudest form it represents a belief in the inherent inferiority of indigenous languages and systems of knowledge, including culture, religion, and even medicine. It is the same mindset that informs the rather strong opposition to mother-tongue teaching in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa. The problem with unpacking this mindset is that it would involve driving home some hard truths that, for some people, could be difficult to stomach. One risks stepping, metaphorically speaking, on some psychological toes. That, though, should not stand in the way of an honest discussion. So here we go.
Why, instead of fixating on language, don’t we ask why our graduates are unable to identify problems that afflict our societies, for example, and devise appropriate remedies for their resolution? The attitude that breeds contempt in us for our languages and knowledge systems points to our collective alienation from our surroundings. The fact, though, is: what is indigenous is what is truly ours. Therefore, contempt for the indigenous is, in a sense, a rejection of oneself. Psychoanalysts will tell you that self hate is a condition of the oppressed, usually expressed in low self-esteem and the preoccupation with the trivial.
This cognitive dissonance has a debilitating effect on us and disables us from responding to challenges in our own communities that we ought to be responding to. For many of us, given the enormity of the challenges, the easier thing to do is to abscond from our settings, to escape to lands far away in order to find meaning for our lives. Thus, one may escape from the village to the city and from the city to a land as far away as possible in search of the comfort anonymity and detachment offer.
This is not simply hyperbole. Let’s return a little bit to the Miss Rwanda pageantry. The panel of judges alerted the contestants that they had an option to respond to questions in a language they were most comfortable with: French, English, or Kinyarwanda. While it is highly likely that all the contestants speak Kinyarwanda fluently, not a single soul sought to use it to respond to the judges’ questions. That, despite the obvious risks involved, which the young woman’s lack of mastery of French put on display.
And why would they not choose Kinyarwanda? The answer is not as straight-forward as one may imagine. For starters, the social pressure from an expectant audience meant that by responding in Kinyarwanda, a language many would perceive as a mark of lack of education, a contestant was likely to reduce her chances of being selected for the next stage of the competition, especially if her fellow competitors would subsequently respond in either English or French. More importantly, speaking French offers one the chance to evade the social stigma of denigration as a “villager”. On balance, therefore, avoiding Kinyarwanda was, by all means, worth the risk.
The decision must have involved cold-hearted calculation. There’s therefore something to be said about dissecting the bias against our own language and crafting strategies to combat it. If we weren’t so daft as to imagine that mastery of foreign languages is a mark of civilisation, the contestants whose French was lame wouldn’t appear as daft as some imagine them to be. This aspect also escaped the minds of the mob in its haste to lynch.
Taken together, therefore, the situation points to circumstances in which these young ladies, most of them still in their formative stages, are trapped by forces well beyond their immediate control. Once you appreciate their predicament, laughing at them acquires a cruel twist.