When something happens close to where you are, then you are the expert on the subject. When news filtered in that Rwandan lawmakers had added Kiswahili to the language menu, friends from different parts of the world turned me into a freelance parliamentary spokesperson by asking me whether it was true.
They also wondered how things will be, given that French, English and Kinyarwanda are already official languages. Interestingly I also had some questions of my own like whether RBA will now have four news bulletins to cover all the four languages. What many were forgetting is that being part of the East African Community made this development inevitable. However the language has always been part and parcel of the Rwandan society.
Besides geography, politics and commerce, Rwanda is a multilingual society. Sometimes the cocktail of the languages you encounter while here may blow your mind. Some years back when I was new here, I once met a security officer late at night, who on realising I couldn’t speak Kinyarwanda, asked if I could speak Kiswahili or Runyankore. I have met Rwandans who speak fluent Lingala, Lugisu, Lusoga, Rutooro, Kikuyu, Luo and so many other languages.
The bad politics that forced many Rwandans to seek refugee outside meant that when peace returned the country got an infusion of languages carried along by the returnees. Last week I was in the company of two Rwandans who both know Kinyarwanda and English but were conversing in Kiswahili to each other thanks to the time they spent living in Kenya. Many others lived in Tanzania and will not hesitate to show off with their sanifu version of the same.
Another friend of mine who works at one of the breweries here once made me laugh when he told me how he once went to Tanzania for studies and he soon learnt that he could not comprehend the Kiswahili spoken in Magufuli’s land and they too struggled to pick what he was saying using his version of the same language that he picked from his days living in Eastern DRC. In other words in making the language official we may have to deal with the issue of standardisation.
Kiswahili has also been the trade and military lingua franca in the region for many years. I will stick to the trade bit of things. In a multilingual set up, different languages will compete for dominance, but the trade will always play a key role because money is a universal language.
The footballers who ply their trade in Europe often take time to learn English, French, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese depending on which league they feature in.
In the same spirit, many traders in East Africa find themselves compelled to learn Kiswahili in order to make the money they are after. Many Ugandans do not speak the language but you will find Ugandans trading in Burundi, DRC, Tanzania or even South Sudan all using Kiswahili to seal their deals. I have seen Rwandans learning Swahili or even Luganda just because of the work they do and who they interact with. Nyabugogo Bus Park is one of the areas that are a melting pot of languages in Rwanda.
By the way, the presidents of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and DRC can all understand this language fairly well. I am not sure about the one of South Sudan. Also a good number of people consume contemporary regional music in Kiswahili especially from Tanzania, Kenya and a bit of Uganda if you focus on the ‘Kenyan-made’ artists like Jose Chameleon and Bebe Cool. When one wants to appeal to the region then Kiswahili eases that journey. Burundian star Kidum is a good example.
Kinyarwanda and English will remain the dominant languages as one unites all Rwandan and the other loops them into the global language sphere that English rules. French will also continue to be vital especially regarding Rwanda’s strategic trade relationships with Francophone Africa. Those trading in the region will still rely a lot on Kiswahili.
Ultimately what matters most is that we communicate efficiently in these languages and for this to happen we need to have good language teachers to keep passing on the skills to others wishing to learn any of the languages. Rwanda is will be the biggest beneficiary when it has a skilled and multilingual workforce well positioned at the centre of the continent. Like I often told my students, all languages are important as long as you learn them well.