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French-speaking Rwanda turns to English

Since an Anglophone rebel movement swept into the country a decade ago, English has quickly gained currency as the language of education and opportunity.

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"Not that much has changed since liberation; Africa is still a profitable region in terms of France's commercial trade balance," says Achille Mbembe, history professor from Cameroon, who teaches at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Fifty percent of Africa's uranium still goes to France's nuclear plants. If you go to the markets in Senegal, you'll find no African sodas or juices, only French ones."

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In Rwanda, all of that is changing. The Franco-Rwandaise Cultural Society – once the beating heart of all things French in Kigali – has been closed, along with the French international school, the French embassy, and many of the offices of French multinational companies. For language study, Rwandans are turning to a growing industry of English-language academies, and for the plum university posts, they turn to English-language colleges like KIST.

"Officially, the policy of the Rwandan government is bilingualism, both French and English," says Jean-Baptiste Rusine, director of the KIST Language Center. "But there is something psychological at work, too. At the time of monarchy, the language of the court was the language of the people. In these times, the president and his high advisors speak English, so you will feel tempted to write proposals, or to speak more in English than in French."

The real driving force for Rwanda's preference for English is more economic than political, says Chrysologue Karangwa, who, as rector of KIST, oversees all departments. With a fast-growing number of foreign investors (most from anglophone countries) coming to Rwanda, and with Rwanda joining the East African Community trade bloc, Rwanda can benefit from closer ties with its English-speaking neighbors while maintaining ties with French-speaking ones like Burundi and Congo.

At the same time, Mr. Karangwa says that Rwanda will need to hear a more apologetic tone from France before it restores relations. "What we want is for France to accept that at a certain period and at a certain extent, the French government played a role in the genocide," he says.

The signs of a new Anglophone Rwanda are subtle. Billboard advertisements often print their slogans in English first, then in French. But menus certainly haven't changed "pommes-frites" into "freedom fries."

Muyunyi Nicholas, an engineering student at KIST, grew up speaking French, but has switched to English.

"English will be an advantage for us, as we are joining the East African Convention," he says, referring to a trade bloc of English-speaking countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and others. "If we are going to be doing business with those countries, we need to be using their language."

Jessica Karera, another civil engineering student at KIST, also prefers English to French. "Mostly, it's for economic reasons," she says. "After 1994, Rwandans could see that the countries colonized by England had achieved much, much more." She does hope that Rwanda will restore relations with France, now that France has Sarkozy at the helm. But that new relationship will only be meaningful if France "accepts what they did in the genocide. They can give $10 billion in aid, but that isn't going to replace all the people who died."