When Rwanda introduced English as an official language in 2003 and joined English-speaking East African Community and the Commonwealth less than a decade later some observers claimed the country was ditching French.
This was despite the fact that French remained one of the official languages, as was Kinyarwanda, the national language, and later Swahili. In recent years, there have also been suggestions to make sign language the fourth official language in the country of some 12 million people.
For starters, Kinyarwanda and French were the only languages recognised in Rwanda prior to the 2003 constitution.
However, when the RPF-led government took power having stopped the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, it made it clear that human capital was the country’s number one resource and it would do everything to invest in the people to make them competitive regionally and internationally.
Subsequently, the country rolled out an ambitious development blueprint anchored on fundamentals necessary for a knowledge-based economy to emerge. This, among other things, necessitated adopting English as well as Swahili as additional official languages so Rwandans can be able to do business and pursue opportunities in the region and beyond.
This was the context within which Rwanda successfully sought to join both the EAC and Commonwealth.
It was, therefore, clear right from the onset that introducing English or joining the two blocs had nothing to do with French as an official language in Rwanda. Of course, of the four official languages spoken in Rwanda English is the most dominant in business circles around the world, and therefore there was a need to promote it in schools.
Indeed, for the post-Genocide leadership, priority has always been what gives the people of Rwanda a competitive edge in the global village. Language is certainly one of the essential tools. In fact, Mandarin Chinese should be considered in the future given China’s growing influence in international trade.
Today, Rwanda is not only part of both English-speaking East African Community and French-speaking Economic Community of the Central African States, it’s also an active member of both the Commonwealth and La Francophonie. Each of these communities has its own advantages and Rwandans have the opportunity to benefit from them all.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Rwanda has recently received dozens of French teachers from a dozen countries to help boost French teaching and learning. They are part of 100 French language teachers who are expected to teach the language in Rwandan schools over a period of two years.
The project, a joint collaboration between La Francophone secretariat and the Ministry of Education, will help bridge the gap in French-language teaching further strengthening the country’s multilingual culture. Previously, a similar initiative helped improve English speaking and there is no doubt this programme will also bear fruit.
Rwandans should make the most of these opportunities to enhance their marketability and competitiveness.