Is Kinyarwanda on the brink of extinction?

King Mutara III Rudahigwa undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the history of Rwanda. He is credited for, among other accomplishments, abolishing serfdom and establishing an education fund.
 Paul Ntambara
Paul Ntambara

King Mutara III Rudahigwa undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the history of Rwanda. He is credited for, among other accomplishments, abolishing serfdom and establishing an education fund. What is believed to be the turning point of his reign came in 1943 when he converted to Catholicism, was baptised and christened Charles Léon Pierre. Three years after baptism he dedicated Rwanda to the Christ the King.

Such was his mark on the Rwandan society that stories (some possibly invented) abound about his run-ins with the colonial masters-the Belgians, especially during the period leading up to his mysterious demise in 1959. One such story is that Rudahigwa was once denied access to a hotel in Astrida (today Huye). The hotel was considered a ‘whites only’ facility. Standing at 6’8 tall, the gigantic Rudahigwa is said to have forced his way into the hotel, that the Belgians were clobbered, sent flying by the furious Rudahigwa. So the story goes.

In another incident, it is said that during a spat with a Belgian colonial master, Rudahigwa is said to have asked one member of his entourage to find a fitting translation of the Kinyarwanda expression of disgust ‘Asyiiiiii!’ for the benefit of his interlocutor! Such is the power of mother tongue that Rudahigwa had to go native to express his true feelings.

This story, whether true or invented, got me thinking about the plight of the Kinyarwanda language. Will the real Kinyarwanda language stand the test of time? Just recently, Rwanda marked the mother tongue with much fanfare but a close scrutiny of the events as they unfolded revealed that all is not well with our mother tongue, it is endangered.  I looked forward to fine Kinyarwanda oratory to supplement my own grasp of the language which is only excellent on my curriculum vitae!

I was particularly stunned by the realisation that even officials from the culture and language academy could not string together a few sentences in Kinyarwanda; one official managed a fine cocktail of Kinya-French and here we were celebrating our mother tongue.

If the old guard are getting wrong, then it can only get worse with the youth. On the streets and in taxis, eavesdropping a conversation in ‘proper’ Kinyarwanda is as hard as describing Rwanda’s staple food. The situation has also been made complex by the country’s recent history. After the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Rwanda witnessed a big wave of returnees from different parts of the world. With them came different languages. And those that they found here emulated them; it suddenly became ‘uncool’ to speak proper Kinyarwanda as doing so would mean that one is ‘too local’.

So people began faking accents, killing the language so as to show that they are not the usual ‘local’ guys.   Despite available evidence that if a speaker talks freely and fluently in their own language they can soon learn to speak well and easily in another language, ‘dotcom’ parents saw (and still do)  it more stylish for their toddlers to learn to speak English or French and not Kinyarwanda.

We can also learn a thing about the numerous language schools that sprouted after 1994. It was all French and English, and not Kinyarwanda. A plausible explanation for this could be that it didn’t make business sense, no one was interested. With Rwanda joining the East African Community, Swahili was added on the menu, so Swahili teachers like Mwalimu Malonga became celebrities overnight.

There is no doubt that the Kinyarwanda language will continue to evolve, some words will continue to disappear from normal discourse. A good example of this trend is the French language. Despite the setting up of the French academy to jealously guard the French language, the French have had to accept words like ‘le weekend in their vocabulary.

What is the future of Kinyarwanda? The Rwanda academy for language and culture has its plate full, its job is clearly cut out, how it manages to preserve the Kinyarwanda language and culture will define what Rwandans as a people will be, it is about posterity.

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