Rwanda replaced French with English as its language of education a decade ago, but French is now experiencing a revival. French was the most-widely spoken European language in the once Belgian colony until it began losing ground to English in the aftermath of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, when the anglophone Tutsi took control.
Adding to Rwandan distaste for French was the widely held accusation that France, through its inaction, was complicit in the genocide that killed at least 800,000 people.
In 2003, President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, made English an official language alongside the country’s first language, Kinyarwanda, and French. Five years later, he replaced French with English as the language of education.
The government also began conducting official business in English, although laws are still published in all three official languages, with Swahili added as a fourth last year.
The pivot away from French language and influence deepened with Rwanda’s joining of the anglophone East African Community regional bloc and the Commonwealth club of former British colonies.
Now, Rwanda’s foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo, who is a candidate to lead the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF), the world association of French-speaking nations, says rejecting the language was never the plan. “This is a misinterpretation—it was necessary for Rwanda to try to be part of this club of English-speaking countries,” Mushikiwabo told Agence France-Presse. “The interpretation that suggests that Rwanda turned to English against French may have been the result of relations between France and Rwanda. I think there was confusion between the relations of Rwanda and France and the relations of Rwanda with the Francophonie,” she added.
The majority of Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda primarily or exclusively, but in 2015, the OIF estimated that 700,000 Rwandans (6% of the population) were French speaking, making it more widely used than English.
French news and satellite television channels are popular. French has also been reintroduced to the primary school curriculum—but as a foreign language—and the French-immersion school in the capital Kigali, which reopened in 2010 after a four-year closure, has a long waiting list for admission.
Bilingualism is simple pragmatism for a small country seeking to grow, to extend its influence and ties, argues Mushikiwabo: “The omnipresence of English is perhaps inevitable, but that does not mean that the French language cannot assert its advantages, its assets.”