chapter  11
22 Pages

Rwanda Switches to English: Conflict, Identity, and Language- in-Education Policy

ByBeth Lewis Samuelson

Rwanda seized the world’s attention in April 1994, when genocidal violence broke out during a bitter guerrilla insurgency war. According to official estimates, approximately 937,000 Rwandans died during the 100-day killing spree (Republic of Rwanda, 2008). The Francophone Hutu-led government that instigated the genocide organized a systematic campaign to purge the country of all members of Tutsi ethnicity as well as any Hutu political opponents (Desforges, 1999). In July 1994, the Anglophone Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF ), led by the descendants of longtime Rwandan Tutsi exiles who had fled social unrest from 1959 on, took control of the country and established the transitional Government of National Unity. At the onset of the civil war and genocide, Rwanda belonged to La Francophonie, as a former colony of Belgium; by the end of hostilities, Rwanda was under the control of an Anglophone government that in short order declared English to be an additional official language, alongside Kinyarwanda and French. Although it is argued that adopting English as the official language can promote better communication for business, foreign investment, development, and technology transfer, English can also jeopardize other languages, leading to language decline and greater linguistic homogeneity, while giving an advantage to people who already speak the language and raising formidable barriers for those who do not have access to good language instruction (Tollefson, 2000). In Rwanda, the benefits of learning in English and making a rapid transition from learning in French are not assured for the many students who cannot attend well-resourced schools staffed by well-trained, fluent speakers of English. In order to understand the dramatic change to the policy of official English, we must examine not only the potential of the language shift to increase social and political tensions, but also the way in which the rapid shift to English has been conceived and implemented.