Friday, March 12, 2010

What Advantage is there for Rwanda to Switch from French to English?

The landlocked nation of Rwanda is located in Central Africa and is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts or is half the size of Scotland. To the north, it is bordered by Uganda, to the south by Burundi, to the east by Tanzania, and to the west it is partially separated from the Democratic Republic of Congo by the Ruzizi Valley and Lake Kivu. This tiny nation of over 8-million inhabitants came into the international limelight during the 1994 genocide where approximately a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a span of 100-days thus going down in history as the worst ever documented intertribal genocide. Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Sub-Saharan Africa, has often been described as the “Land of Thousand Hills” by geographers and visitors alike. It has a rich history and culture and prides to have had mysterious kingdoms with legendary military force before European powers set foot in Africa. Formerly a Belgian colony, Rwanda is now saying farewell to the French Language in favor of English which has become the lingua franca of Sub-Saharan Africa. The Government of Rwanda claims that English has become the backbone for growth and development not only in the region but around the globe and that French is spoken only in France, some parts of West Africa, and in some parts of Canada and Switzerland.

Like its neighbor Burundi, Rwanda has had a long history of intertribal conflict beginning in the late 18th century when European powers convened in Berlin, Germany in 1884 under the auspices of King Leopold II of Belgium who originated what came to be known as the “Scramble for Africa” or the “Race for Africa” leading to the partitioning of the mighty continent of Africa along colonial powers Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Germany. Formerly what used to be Ruanda-Urundi was mandated to Belgium in 1923 by the League of Nations (now The United Nations). This conference eliminated all the existing forms of self-governance and autonomy previously practiced by Africans. Inspired by explorer Henry M. Stanley’s book, Through the Dark Continent (1878), the Berlin Conference attendees found reason to exploit the human and natural resources of the African continent while at the same time establishing a prolonged imperial legacy that would benefit future generations of European expansionist enthusiasts. The splicing up of Africa among European imperialists took-off immediately after the abolition of the horrendous trans-Atlantic slave trade commencing in 15th century and culminating in the eventual industrialization of Europe and North America.

After World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a Trust Territory of the United Nations controlled by Belgium. Rwanda and Burundi simultaneously proclaimed independence from Belgium on July 1, 1962. Prior to independence, Belgian administrators running the colony favored the tall Tutsis who had European-like features (as the Belgians claimed) over the short Hutus by giving the Tutsis administrative and military positions. In order to exploit the social structure that existed, the Belgians supported the Tutsi Mwami (king) and even introduced ethnic identity cards so as to divide-and-rule the two ethnic groups. Colonial anthropologists argued that the taller Tutsis were “Black Europeans”. The Hutus are regarded as the ethnic majority of Rwanda while Tutsis are considered in racialist ideology, a foreign race as opposed to indigenous race. It was Jean Hiernaux of the French National Center for Scientific Research, who, in late 1974, noted a 10 centimeter difference between the Tutsi (taller) and Hutu (shorter).

Racialist ideologists went as far as concluding that the civilization seen in Africa before the spread of European colonialism originated from an external Caucasian race but black in color-in what came to be known as “Hamitic Theory”. Thus, the origin of the outsider civilizing Hamitic race is placed in the Horn of Africa. These racialist ideologists were stimulated by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the eugenics movement, and racism. Belief in the superiority of the white European race over the dark African race proliferated ethnocentrism to an extent Germany embarked on what became known as realpolitik where global dominance or influence of a larger scale was only attainable through increase in power and wealth.

Walter Rodney, in his 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, repudiated Colonial European ethnic division of Rwanda natives by suggesting that the tall stature of the Tutsis is a result of pastoralist protein-rich diet. He further shed light by claiming that the short Twa (forest people) possess pygmoid features simply because they are hunters/gatherers by occupation and that they lack essential nutrients in their diets. For the Hutus who are shorter than the Tutsis but taller than the Twa, Walter Rodney argued that, because they are agriculturalists, they have relatively poor food available for body building.

The land once described as a “tropical Switzerland in the heart of Africa”, Rwanda came to symbolize the killing fields of Cambodia when an inexperienced Hutu president ascended the throne upon proclamation of independence from Belgium in 1962. In order to impose law and order and ensure their “civilizing missions” materialized, colonial powers vested some authority on churches of their choosing. Church figureheads in turn proselytized, trained, and elevated subservient, approachable, and courageous ethnic groups they felt would relay the expansionist colonialist torches as commanded while observing standard operating procedures (SOPS).

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana, President of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, President of Burundi, was brought down by a missile while flying over Kigali International Airport, the capital of Rwanda, killing everyone on board including the two presidents who had just returned from a reconciliation conference in the city of Arusha in Tanzania. From 1973 until his death in 1994, Juvénal Habyarimana favored his Hutu tribe over the minority Tutsis. Former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, on an official tour of Africa, had this chilling message for the people of Rwanda upon landing at Kigali International Airport in 1998: "We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred". [1] The former Canadian general Roméo Dallaire overseeing the United Nations peace keeping operations at the time of the genocide wrote in one his books the following the lines: "Rwanda will never ever leave me. It's in the pores of my body. My soul is in those hills, my spirit is with the spirits of all those people who were slaughtered and killed that I know of, and many that I didn't know.” [2]

Rwanda and Burundi became member states of the East African Community (EAC) in 2007. Formerly, the EAC comprised of the former British colonies Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania that are English-speaking. 80% of Rwanda’s population speaks Kinyarwanda. The implementation of laissez-faire economies, a common customs and excise tax system, unrestricted airspace, common parliament, unhindered borders and free movement of people and goods across borders, and the creation of a common monetary unit (shilling), EAC member states will eventually benefit without depending much on foreign handouts.

Rwanda has introduced a cricket board mimicking the British system. The game was brought to Rwanda by its Diaspora returning mainly from Kenya where the game is common. Rwanda will be the second country after Mozambique (Portuguese speaking)-that has not been colonized by Britain-to join the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II of England is the ceremonial head of the Commonwealth which incorporates fifty-four member states. Rwanda was admitted as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations in November, 2009. It has also been a Member of the United Nations since 18 September, 1962. Ambassador Joseph Nsengimana is Rwanda’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. The leaders of Rwanda have embraced the idea of joining various clubs so as to relinquish Rwanda’s dependence on colonial master France that has been implicated in the 1994 genocide that decimated roughly 20% of the nation’s human population.

Despite the devastating genocide and the preceding political, social, and economic hardships inherited from imperialism, colonialism, and European exploitation, no wonder at present “…Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world with women constituting 48.8% in the Chamber of Deputies and 34.6% in the Senate. The Government of Rwanda also has 34% of women in its Cabinet.” [3]

In 2008, the Government of Rwanda announced that English would become the language of instruction in schools replacing French. On a visit to Rwanda on Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted that France had made “grave errors” in the 1994 genocide. [4] For now relations between France and Rwanda seem to be thawing. Upon President Nicolas Sarkozy returning to France, the French government detained Agathe Habyarimana for crimes related to the 1994 genocide. She is the widow of former President Juvénal Habyarimana who died in a plane crash in 1994. “Her arrest follows a visit to the Rwandan capital Kigali last week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, when he admitted that France - and the wider international community - had make "mistakes" over the genocide.” [5]

Upon taking the reins of power in 1994, Paul Kagame, the current leader of Rwanda exhausted all avenues until he was forced to use coercive power to subdue the masterminds of the genocide by pursuing them into the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo by dispatching contingents of the Rwanda Armed Forces. As a gesture of goodwill and reciprocity, Rwanda’s head of state extended amnesty to some his rivals to overcome enduring rivalries. He called on Rwandans to show restraint and embark on disarmament so as to overcome enduring internal rivalries.

Rwanda underwent decentralization initiatives on January 1, 2006. Up to 2001, the country was divided into twelve regions formerly known as prefectures. The twelve prefectures have been reduced to five regions: North Province, East Province, West Province, South Province, and Kigali Province. Such decentralization techniques are meant to empower the common citizen to collectively participate in nation-building efforts so as to attain self-sufficiency and modernization.

Since the leaders of Rwanda are responsible for steering the nation to its right course and that they fully understand what is good for Rwanda as a sovereign nation, there is absolutely nothing wrong with switching from French to English as the language of instruction for the schools of Rwanda. The recent visit by the President of the France to Rwanda signals the restoration of the lost relations beween the two countries. For the citizens of Rwanda, learning a new language (English) should be an added advantage politically, socially, and economically.

Cited Sources

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