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Bilingual nation: Rwanda pushes to parler English

By Lara SantoroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 3, 2000



BUTARE, RWANDA

Just 12 months to learn fluent English doesn't seem like much to law student Jean Paul Kayitare.

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But that's exactly what Rwanda's National University expects of him and his fellow 4,500 classmates. "We have only one year," says Mr. Kayitare. "After that we must follow lectures in both languages."

In an effort to become a bilingual nation, Rwanda has implemented an ambitious - and controversial - crash-course program for college students to learn whichever language they are currently unfamiliar with - French or English.

Rwanda's government is planning to adopt both as official languages. By doing so, it will be able to join the East African community -which includes English-speaking Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. At the same time, it could use its French to further commercial relations with the Francophone world.

If Rwanda's linguistic policy succeeds, it will set an African precedent. So far, Cameroon alone has tried to forge a bilingual society out of its colonial past as a shared French and British territory. However, like oil and water, the two languages have never really mixed there.

Rwanda might then become the first country in Africa where the traditional rivalry between Anglophones and Francophones dissolves.

The National University in Butare is proving to be a catalyst of sorts for the policy. There, the effort to cater separately to both French and English speakers failed - largely for economic reasons. It was simply too costly.

"By 1995, we had 385 visiting lecturers," says Jean-Bosco Butera, the dean of students at Rwanda's National University. "We realized we simply could not afford to have two streams of training."

French became Rwanda's official language in the 1920s, under the Belgians. When a revolution by the country's largest ethnic group, the Hutu, overthrew both the Belgians and Rwanda's traditional rulers, the Tutsi, in 1959, French remained the language spoken in the civil administration, courts, and schools.

However, in the wake of this last decade's ethnic violence, 200,000 Rwandans fled to neighboring Uganda. There, these emigrants had no choice but to learn English.

A number of Rwandans, namely those in the financial sector - are now pushing for English as a national language. But not everyone is thrilled by the notion.

Earlier this month, students at the National University rebelled against the policy. In response, the government reacted with open scorn when 112 students - all of them English speakers about to face their first exams in French - deserted the campus. Forty-nine of the students crossed into Uganda, and immediately claimed refugee status at the offices of the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees.

They cried political persecution. In their opinion, learning French in one year was impossible - a clear sign the Rwandan government was discriminating against them. The French speakers, the students pointed out, had the advantage of having learned some English in high school, whereas none of the English speakers had ever been exposed to French.

Finding no evidence of political persecution, the UNHCR has dismissed the students' claims. At home, the students' "exodus," as it is now known, has met with near-universal condemnation. Paul Kagame, a taciturn leader by African standards, could not refrain from referring to the students publicly as "garbage."

The country's vice president and de facto ruler, Mr. Kagame grew up in Uganda and doesn't speak a word of French. The same can be said for the Army chief of staff, Kayumba Nyamwasa. Ministries and embassies are filled with English speakers. Many note that such a policy would be a definite advantage in an English-speaking world.

Nonetheless, medical student Robert Karenzi has mixed feelings. "It's a bit hard," he says of the English course he took last year. "But with a little effort, it can be done." Out of the eight courses he is expected to complete this year, two (physiology and psychology) are in English.

"I have difficulty speaking, but I can read and write [English]," he says. Next year, the number of classes Mr. Karenzi must take in English will rise to three. The following year, it will be four: half of his course load.

"When I first came here, there was a very strong sense of difference," says Mr. Butera. "Students were saying, 'We are Anglophones; we are Francophones.' "

"It will take a lot of hard work and a clear vision" to bridge the gap. "And I say, let's give it time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society