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To more Africans, English is hip - and can even save lives

French is becoming passé as US influence grows and English is seen as the language of opportunity.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2005



BUNIA, CONGO

For a wiry young priest named Richard Diroma, learning English may be a matter of life and death.

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With militias lurking on the town's outskirts, the Rev. Diroma yearns to speak directly to English-speaking UN peacekeepers aiming to protect him and his flock. So, on a recent rain-drenched afternoon he's sitting in a dim classroom conjugating verbs. And he's not alone.

Here in the heart of Africa, where France's language, culture, and philosophy have dominated since francophone Belgians began colonizing in the 1870s, French is becoming passé. Bunia's hipsters greet each other with, "Hello," not "Bonjour." English classes are filling up.

The reasons are many - and emblematic of similar shifts across Africa. English is seen as the language of business and global opportunity. It also connects anglophones with US largess, which is growing because of the war on terrorism - and sometimes allows them to vent anger at France.

Many people "are not yet paying attention to this, but it's going to be one of the most important changes in Africa in coming years," says Mamadou Diouf, who teaches African history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Consider:

• Traditionally French-speaking Rwanda has made English its top official language, in part because of lingering animosity toward France over what Rwanda's leaders see as French complicity in the 1994 genocide.

• In the former French colony of Ivory Coast, growing nationalist anger at France over the past year has spurred affection for English. Some disaffected youths chanted "USA is better" while ransacking French businesses in the capital last October.

• In Senegal, also a former French colony, English is now common among the elite. Wealthy citizens are increasingly forsaking the Sorbonne in Paris for a US education. The president vows to help the US fight terror - and has received an aid influx.

• In Djibouti, the longtime French military presence is being crowded by the growing US antiterror base, which is home to some 2,000 US troops.

It adds up to a waning of once-considerable French power in Africa, says Peter Kagwanja of Crisis Group in Pretoria, South Africa: "Basically, the French empire is receding."

Here in Bunia, though, English has more to do with economics - and health - than geopolitics.

For a 30-something dad named John Kabaseke, learning English means money in his pocket. He's a translator for UN troops and gets paid about $300 a month - a virtual fortune in a region that's been wracked by conflict for a decade. (A 1998-2003 war in Congo involved troops from six African nations and left up to 4 million people dead.) "English is the language of business," Mr. Kabaseke says with a wide smile. "It's the language of the future."

The rise of English here is also connecting this far-eastern region of Congo to its English-speaking neighbors. Congo's capital, Kinshasa, is about 1,200 miles away. But Kampala, the capital of English-speaking Uganda, is only 200 miles.

When a woman named Marie-Therese Djoza needed a good hospital, she journeyed to Kampala. But she spoke little English and couldn't find a translator. She could tell doctors about one ailment as she knew a few related English words. But she couldn't describe an eye problem. That's why she now sits next to Father Diroma in English class.

Their professor at Bunia's Superior Pedagogical Institute, a smiley, rotund man named Philippe Ndjalo, preaches the value of English, including the attitudes it embodies. "In the philosophy of French there's not a lot of action," he says. For too long, Congolese have "spoken too much" and not done enough.

He cites former President Mobutu Sese Seko as "a man with nice speeches" who did little. (One sign that the language divide isn't always so clear-cut is thatMobutu was backed by the US during his kleptocratic reign.)

Yet even the school's head of language programs, French professor Philip Lokpari, says, "I would advise students to study English" before French, "because of the space English is taking up in the world."

He adds that one silver lining in Bunia's conflicts is the arrival of English-speaking UN soldiers and aid workers. "It is opening us to the world," he says.

But the French are putting up a fight over their future in Africa. In February, for instance, French President Jacques Chirac admonished South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki - the mediator in Ivory Coast's civil war - saying, "West Africa is West Africa. It has its own characteristics. You have to know it well." It was seen as a shot across the bow of the English- speaking Mr. Mbeki - that he shouldn't get too involved in the francophone realm.

Also, at last month's G-8 summit, a French-backed program competed for some of the help-Africa limelight: It would tax European air travelers to create a fund to aid Africa.

But for some aspiring anglophones, it's about more than just learning English and dropping French, Professor Diouf explains, or being anti-French and pro-American. It's about being pro-African.

For native French speakers, learning English connects them to new parts of Africa.

"I can establish a bridge with my fellow Africans who don't speak French," he says. "It's a way of carving out an African identity."

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