9 February 2017

Rwanda: MPs Approve Law Making Kiswahili Official Language

Photo: Timothy Kisambira/New Times
Lawmakers follow proceedings in Parliament during the debate.

Members of the Lower House yesterday passed the organic law establishing Kiswahili as an official language. Swahili joins Kinyarwanda, English and French as the country's fourth official language.

For now, the language will primarily be used for administrative purposes, appearing as one of the official languages in some official documents.

Appearing before the lawmakers to provide insight into why the law is necessary, the Minister for Sports and Culture, Julienne Uwacu, explained that the decision was motivated by both obligation and a variety of many other benefits.

"Rwanda joined the East African Community (EAC) in 2007 and in the statute that establishes this bloc, Kiswahili is universally used in the region and members are requested to make Kiswahili one of their official languages," Uwacu said.

"Kiswahili as an official language is, on one hand, fulfilling what we are required to do as a member country but, on the other hand, it's a way to increase the benefits that Rwandans can reap from economic integration."

Uwacu told the MPs that the East African Passport was meant to have started being used in January this year and requested that because of this urgency, the law is passed without it necessarily going through standing committees for further review.

However, the lawmakers expressed mixed feelings on the law.

MP Jean Baptiste Rucibigango said that though Kiswahili is not a language that is historically used in Rwanda, it is one of the most popular in East Africa and would definitely be of added value.

He wondered how it would be incorporated in schools as a foundation.

"It's one of the languages that we can compare to Spanish and English when it comes to how popular it has become in this region and I am in support of this law. The draft law says that the language shall be used in administration but I don't see anywhere where it says it will be taught in schools or used in research. How is this going to be done?" Rucibigango asked.

Presidential Order

In response, Uwacu said that a Presidential Order would detail when Kiswahili would be incorporated in school curriculum.

"We are going to introduce a curriculum and teaching material and we will definitely take advantage of the relationship that we have with other partner states who already use the language," the minister said.

MP Jean-Marie Vianney Gatabazi wondered whether the Government was ready for such a transition in terms of budget, calling it an "expensive undertaking."

"The moment this law is gazetted, there are so many things that need to change in terms of documentation, for instance," he said.

MP Juvenal Nkusi agreed and also reminded fellow lawmakers that as a member of the EAC, Rwanda had ratified the bloc's treaty making the language which is already officially recognised by the members automatically applicable.

"Are we seriously going to adopt a law because of the East African passport? In the EAC treaty, is Swahili not recognised? Did we not ratify that treaty? Doesn't that automatically make it applicable in Rwanda? Would it stop the passport from being functional? Then there is also the cost. For a language that is already applicable here, why are we giving ourselves the burden of this cost?" he wondered.

To this, Uwacu said that the process would be gradual but reminded the MPs that in the recently revised budget, there is money that was set aside specifically for the EAC passport.

On adopting the language, she said that the process is gradual and reminded that there is a lot to benefit from learning Kiswahili, especially since East African countries had opened their borders to each other's citizens.

MP Theobald Mporanyi requested to know numbers indicating how many Rwandans speak Kiswahili, wondering if it was necessary to adopt another language.

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