The month of record

Rwanda: French could be returning to in school 

Rwanda replaced French with English as its language of education a decade ago, but French might be on a revival, thanks to a deliberate effort by the government and the Francophonie to bring back the language. 

By Ange Iliza, at Kigali

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 English swiftly took over. 

In 1996, the constitution enthroned English as an official language; in 2007, Rwanda joined the East African Community; in 2008, English became the medium of instruction at all school levels; and in 2009, Rwanda became a member of the Commonwealth.

In 2018, French was spoken by 724,000 of Rwanda’s 12.5 million people – or roughly six percent of the population, according to the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF).

In the education sector, the change in languages has been anything but consistent. The shift was viewed as a large-scale linguistic gamble by some and a carefully crafted transition by others. At some point, teaching French in public schools seemed optional. It is rare to find a fluent French-speaking student in public schools today.

Fourteen years after the shift, French might be on the reviving track. Since 2021, Rwanda and France have been working to patch their relations following a quarter-century of diplomatic tension between the two countries over France’s role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Since then, President Emmanuel Macron of France has visited Kigali and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has been seen in Paris on multiple occasions. 

For the past few years, the government of Rwanda, seemingly supported by the International Organisation of the Francophone (OIF), has been investing in efforts in reintroducing French in schools. 

French should be reintroduced and be given equal priority in schools”

Rwanda has so far received two batches of French teachers from multiple African Francophone countries to facilitate schools integrating back the French language. The most recent arrival was in April this year. The 70 French teachers will for a period of two years (one year, renewable), both teach French to students and train fellow teachers in public schools.

The political will and efforts to reinstall French in public schools were particularly well-welcomed by parents and French speakers who believe the education system will match the current job market demands if it teaches in both English and French. 

One of them is Francois Mutijima who parents two sons in Kigali. A French speaker himself, Mutijima preferred to take his children to Francophone private schools because he felt education quality was better in French since they are better versed in French than English. 

“I took my children to Francophone schools because I think the switch to English was too sudden for schools to be equipped and prepared enough. To date, you still find children who speak neither fluent French nor English. I think French should be reintroduced and be given equal priority in schools”, Mutijima said. 

Francophone schools receiving an increasing number of students 

At Ecole Francophone Antoine de Saint Exupéry located in Kigali, one of Rwanda’s oldest private schools, the number of students accommodated by the school has increased from 400 students to 600 in the past two years. Admissions received are more than twice the number. 

Most students at the school are not Rwandan nationals. The school administration told ANA that there are increasingly more Francophone parents and Rwandans who prefer French as a language of instruction in schools. 

Given that Rwanda has no Francophone public schools, all the Francophone schools are private and mostly out of reach of the working class. For instance, the school fees at Ecole Francophone Antoine de Saint Exupéry can reach Rwf900,000 per trimester (€810) compared to less than €80 paid in public schools. An overly expensive price given that the average monthly income of Rwandans is €27. 

Ever since Rwanda’s education shifted to English, Francophone schools have resorted to sourcing teachers from abroad. Ecole Francophone Antoine de Saint Exupéry sources teachers from France and other African French-speaking countries. 

“Yes, it is expensive but holding quality education in an Anglophone country doing so in French is expensive. It is promising to see how Rwanda is embracing French back,” one of the school’s administrators said. 

Seeing the number of students applying at this school increase drastically in just one year is an indicator of how Rwandan schools might see French reinstalled in near future. This will likely become a reality as Rwanda sources more French teachers from abroad. 

“We want to increase the exchange of French language skills. We want the younger generation to be able to speak all the official languages; English, French, Kiswahili, and Kinyarwanda,” said Minister of State in Charge of Primary and Secondary Education Gaspard Twagirayezu.

At to the 18th Francophonie summit the Secretary General of the OIF has announced plans “to launch an appeal to the head of governments to ensure that the French language is kept in their international bodies and education at country level” in particular. 

For Louise Mushikiwabo, who is also a Rwandan national, “it is at the institutional level that we must redouble our efforts”.

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