Rwanda: Speaking the Language of the World?

11 December 2012

Is Rwanda's language transition to English a tool of economic development, political favouritism, or international advertising?

Kigali - In addition to overcrowded classrooms and scarce teaching materials, Rwanda's teachers had yet another obstacle to face on the first day of the 2009 school year: the English language.

Mandated by the government only three months prior as the country's new language of instruction, English swiftly replaced Rwanda's inherited colonial language of French in primary, secondary and university-level schooling.

Nearly four years later, this transition still looks better on paper than it does in the classroom, a common tendency in Rwanda's many efforts at reshaping its international image after the war and genocide of 1994.

Economics or politics?

From the policy's announcement until today, Rwanda's sudden language shift has been justified largely on economic grounds. Its many supporters often cite the country's increasing English proficiency as a crucial tool for gaining access to labour, capital exchange and trade within the East African Community (EAC) - a regional economic partnership between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi - wherein member countries, with the exception of Burundi, speak English widely.

Rwanda's increasingly close relationship with Anglophone world powers, the country's hopes of becoming an IT hub in East Africa, and its acknowledgement of English as the world language of business, science and technology are also key to the government's claim that English will be Rwanda's "gateway to the global knowledge economy".

But although these economic arguments may have some merit, the fact that English holds a particular political significance in Rwanda has led some to speculate that there are other motives behind the policy. English is not only the language of international business but also the language of Rwanda's current political elite, represented by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which is composed largely of Anglophone returnees from Uganda.

With this in mind, some critics see the increasing dominance of English in education and public life as more than just a response to the international economic environment, and perhaps a demonstration of the elite's hegemonic power and means of opportunity hoarding.

Au revoir Francais, hello English?

The polarisation of opinions regarding Rwanda's language transition is to be expected. In its nearly 20 years of post-conflict reconstruction, observers of Rwandan policies have rarely expressed moderate viewpoints; the loudest voices generally being international organisations and donor governments on the one hand, and condemnatory academics and human rights organisations on the other.

Rwanda's language transition has not escaped this controversy, although in reality neither the economic argument nor the political argument seems particularly appropriate.

Firstly, if they arrive, the proposed economic benefits of increased English proficiency are unlikely to materialise soon. Nor will they be realised by everyone.

From the policy's inception, educators were massively ill-prepared for its implementation: only 15% of primary school teachers and 10% of secondary school teachers demonstrated an adequate level of proficiency to teach the language. Almost four years on, classroom observations and interviews with educators suggest most teachers, though supportive of the policy, still face great difficulty communicating and teaching in English.

This gap in proficiency translates directly into the classroom. While sessions generally begin with a resounding "Good morning teacher!", educators, with limited English-speaking abilities, often end up teaching mostly in Kinyarwanda.

The government did offer some training, usually during teachers' holidays, but many educators speaking to Think Africa Press described the training as "insufficient", albeit "helpful". In rural areas, teachers often cite their lack of resources as a hindrance to progress, while throughout the country, they also suffer from very high pupil-to-teacher ratios; 58:1 in primary schools and 37:1 in secondary schools, in 2011.

These shortcomings suggest that any economic benefits claimed by the proponents of language transition are unlikely to be realised as promised any time soon.

As it turns out, however, neither are the detrimental side-effects proposed by some of the policy's critics. Opportunity hogging is something the government is actively combating, not encouraging.

The government has been flexible and innovative throughout the transition: disbursing English-proficient school-based mentors to assist teachers in areas of most need, allowing for lenient testing through the first few years of transition, and only introducing English during the third, as opposed to the first, year of primary school, with Kinyarwanda being used as language of instruction in the first two years.

From a broader perspective, educational opportunity has increased immensely over the past two decades: Rwanda's public schooling now aims to provide 12 years of basic education (12YBE) to all Rwandans, where less than a decade ago it only provided six.

Welcome to Rwanda

A third possible theory for understanding Rwanda's language transition is that it is a public relations move. Though it is perhaps too early to see the developmental and political impacts of English proficiency among Rwandans, the policy in and of itself as a means of promoting Rwanda for investment and partnership has been a success.

It is not mere coincidence that merely a year following the policy's announcement, Rwanda was welcomed into the Commonwealth, a collection of 54 states, of which only two - Rwanda and Mozambique - were not part of the British Empire. Nor is it a surprise that the British Council is heavily investing in the language transition throughout the country; leading the school-based mentors program, supplying teachers with wind-up radios with English training, and providing English classes to civil servants.

Furthermore, the UK's Department for International Development has increased its funding for education in Rwanda by over 50% over five years (2010-2015), committing approximately 27% of its total budget for Rwanda on education initiatives.

Such an impressive commitment to education in Rwanda would be difficult to imagine had the country continued using French as its main language of instruction. While not the most important policy signal to the international aid community, Rwanda's English language transition has undoubtedly contributed to how Rwanda is perceived worldwide, and brought it closer to Anglophone allies.

Watch your mouth

The notion that policy can serve as a means of advertising Rwanda's narrative as an African success story - secure, clean and open for business - is not limited to education, but also present in many facets of the country's post-conflict development. Rwandans themselves are often the first to point out policies in which appearance is more valuable than practicality.

Examples include the absence of street vendors in Kigali and the country's infamous ban on plastic bags, seen as an effort to keep Rwanda the "cleanest place in Africa" and "to draw in foreign visitors and investors".

However, in conversations with Rwandan policy analysts and journalists, the ban on street vendors was often cited as a "barrier" to entrepreneurial Rwandans who want to start a business. Similarly, a new law that makes it mandatory to wear a hairnet while riding a moto-taxi around Kigali displays an outward concern for hygiene, but was labelled as impractical.

Finally, though the Rwandan Ministry of Education counts it as a major "achievement" that "most schools have so far beautified their environment by planting flowers according to ministerial directives", the practical significance of such initiatives pales in contrast to many school's other infrastructural needs, such as roofs that do not leak during the rainy season, adequate desks and classrooms.

By most accounts, Rwanda continues to be an international conundrum: simultaneously described as a model (often a darling) of economic development and an oppressive political regime; and a newly voted member of the UN's Security Council which just months prior, and then again shortly after, had its aid from various donors governments suspended due to Rwanda's alleged support of the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rwanda's adoption of the "language of the world", as many Rwandans described it, is undoubtedly in large part a continuation of its global public relations campaign and its embrace of international development rhetoric. But while on paper the adoption of such vocabulary looks promising, the question remains: will Rwanda be able to speak it?

Daniel Plaut is a freelance writer based in Washington DC, USA. He holds an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is particularly interested in post-conflict transitions, cultural identities and development. Follow him on twitter @plautdaniel.

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