Speaking English becomes cool

Eugene Kwibuka

The adoption of English in schools and businesses gets an enthusiastic reception in Rwanda as closer ties are forged with the Anglophone East African Community and Commonwealth countries.

When 62-year-old Judith Bwabuhe was given a chance to address President Paul Kagame during a recent tour in one of the country’s remotest places, she surprised everyone with her eagerness to speak English.

Bwabuhe, a resident of Ruheru area in Nyaruguru district, southern Rwanda, was among thousands who had gathered at the grounds of a Catholic church in the small town of Kibeho to receive the president, who spent two days visiting the south of the country in February.

After praising the president for his help in building better schools in her village, Bwabuhe proceeded to show her new ability to speak English.

“I know how to share greetings in English: ‘Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening,'” she enthusiastically recited amid applause from the entire crowd. “Your Excellency, I know how to count from one to 100 in English. I want to learn English so that I can communicate with our children in secondary schools. I will be fluently speaking English in the next six months even if I am an old woman. Slowly and slowly I will know.”

Bwabuhe’s immediate concern, to be able to communicate with young people, is significant because four years after the Rwandan government ordered education to be provided in English, the country joined English-speaking Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the East African Community (EAC), as well as the Commonwealth, and the use of English has been catching on at a fast pace.

Many ordinary Rwandans have been investing in learning English as they realise that they need it to work for both the government and private businesses, which have been started by English-speaking foreigners from around the EAC bloc, Asian countries like India and China, as well as from Europe and the USA.

“People are more and more using English in Rwanda. And even more foreigners use the language. So knowing English would help me interact with such people,” Bwabuhe told a local reporter last October, after she had started her English lessons at an evening school for adults that she and fellow villagers in Ruheru have set up.

Private schools offering short English courses are found in almost every business centre in the country and help supplement formal schools in teaching English.

For many businesses in Rwanda, especially those started by investors from other member countries of the EAC bloc, as well as other English-speaking parts of the world, the more that Rwandans speak English, the more they can hope to prosper.

For Indian entrepreneur Kamal K. Dhawal, managing director of Robotics Solutions, which started providing IT solutions in the capital, Kigali, in 2000, it’s been a while since he last needed a translator to sell his services to Rwandans. Since 2006, Dhawal has discovered that an increasing number of his Rwandan clients have started speaking English.

“It helps a lot. It’s a lot easier,” he said, sitting in another newly started electronics shop owned by another Indian businessman and his friend, Dilip Kuradia, in downtown Kigali. “It’s one-on-one communication. It’s easier.”

Recalling how the Rwandan government requested all its employees to speak English and how his company, which bids regularly for government tenders, has benefited, Dhawal believed that “that law helped everybody”.

On the streets of the capital and in the most frequented places of the city, such as the airport and bars and restaurants, most advertising billboards and posters are now in English, even though French theoretically remains one of the country’s three official languages. The other is Kinyarwanda, the native language spoken everywhere.

So learning English seems to be essential for everyone who wants to keep up with the country’s development. And parents like Bwabuhe have started looking at the language as an important legacy they might want to leave to their children to ensure a bright future for them.

“Learning English at my old age also helps me set an example to my children that they have to know English. No excuse!” Bwabuhe said.


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