BUKAVU, ZAIRE — The sign in the radio station reads "SILENCE." The announcer greets his audience with a "Good afternoon, dear listeners." Then he delivers the news in the mother tongue of England.
This studio in eastern Zaire is nothing exceptional for Africa. There are a couple wooden chairs, televisions, a desk, and basic broadcasting equipment. A producer is on hand to monitor sound.
But the broadcast here behind rebel lines is revolutionary, linguistically speaking. English-speaking rebels - first in Rwanda and now in Zaire - are creating an Anglophone crescent in what was once the linguistic domain of the French and French-speaking Belgians. This is occurring much to the consternation of Paris, which feels its traditional cultural influence is diminishing on the continent it considers to be a source of vestigial prestige.
Since 1994, when Rwanda's English-speaking Tutsi rebels took power from the French-speaking Hutu majority, Rwanda has become an increasingly English-speaking domain.
The lingual map of Central Africa has been altered further with the seizure of a large swath of eastern Zaire since late October by Rwandan-backed rebels, some of whom lace their Swahili with English words and are not fully fluent in French.
"English is becoming more important in this part of the world," said Roy Ruvuna, as he prepared to announce the news in English for Bukavu's rebel station, Voice of the People. He adds, "English is becoming en vogue here. Increasingly more people want to speak it. In addition, we have listeners here from other parts of eastern Africa who need information about what is going on here."
Shop signs in rebel areas are still in French, as are formal papers issued by the rebels. Schools teach English, although French remains dominant in the classroom.
But the situation is evolving. For instance, the radio station, which broadcasts across rebel territory and in parts of neighboring Rwanda and Burundi, has added English programs to cater to the increasingly Anglophone audience.
The situation is different from the United States, where Spanish-speaking immigrants are slowly making New York, Miami, and Los Angeles increasingly bilingual. In the case of Central Africa, the change comes from the top: a new regime coming in from the oustide.
The occupied rebel territory in eastern Zaire is taking its lead from Rwanda. There, some of the most powerful politicians and military officers do not speak French, or at least, not in public.
Many road signs are in English. Laws are published in English. Private English courses report increased enrollment, and public schools are offering more English classes. One is just as likely to get a "hello" as a "bonjour" at a military roadblock.
This development has been welcomed with by Anglophone Uganda, which sheltered Rwanda's Tutsi rebels for three decades and sympathetic to Zaire's rebels. The linguistic affinity increases the political ties.
Paris maintains that this linguistical change is a virtual conspiracy by Washington. The US dollar is the preferred currency in most parts of Africa, and American businessmen are making inroads in Francophone Africa.
French diplomats in the region have accused the US government of trying to undermine its clout in Africa. Some French diplomats have gone so far as to insist that Washington is propping up the Rwandan government and the rebels in Zaire in order to counter France's influence on the continent.