Thursday, 31 March 2011

Language: Burundi and the Shadow Cast by Colonialism, Past and Present

There is no better measure of the historic extent of a colonial power than the languages spoken in its former colonies. Both Spanish and English have the most native speakers, ranking number 2 and 3 on many lists of the world's most widely spoken languages, while Portuguese comes in 6 or 7.

French, while it may have been the language of culture and diplomacy for a couple of centuries, doesn't make the top ten, and often ranks about 15 or 16. And that rank may slip more since ethnic conflict in Rwanda and Burundi has set the stage for more Anglophonization in African Great Lakes region.

Both countries as well as neighboring Tanzania were originally German colonies. After World War I, what would become Rwanda and Burundi came under Belgian control, and adopted French as an official language for government and education. Tanzania, however, became a British protectorate with English holding sway.

After independence, French and the local Bantu language were adopted in both Rwanda and Burundi, but Tanzania, which had more than 100 local languages, chose to emphasize Swahili with English as the second language taught at the secondary level. The idea was to create a Tanzanian identity, and appears to have worked better than the strategies used in other newly independent countries. Kenya and Uganda, other British colonies, also opted for English, with Swahili and local languages playing minor roles in education.

But ethnic divides in Rwanda and Burundi have led to extremely bloody conflict over decades. Refugees from both countries found safe havens in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, where their children learned not French, but English. When peace returned to Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons came back and pressure built to recognize English: in 2008 the language of Shakespeare replaced French in Rwandan schools.

Now something similar is happening in Burundi as refugee families--some displaced as long ago as 1972--return from Tanzania. Volunteer teachers have set up a school near the Tanzanian border where English and Swahili are the languages of instruction, and the curriculum follows Tanzanian guidelines.

I experienced the colonial language problem first hand when I attended some sessions of the UN trials on Rwandan genocide in 2001. During the breaks I talked to first to the librarian, a Tanzanian, in English, and then chatted with a reporter for a Great Lake region news service in French. The two men had interesting things to say, so I introduced them to each other, acting as interpreter since one spoke no English, and the other, no French. Then suddenly they realized that one's Swahili and the other's Kirundi were so much alike that the could understand each other. That was the point I backed out of the conversation, since there was no need for me and my two European, colonial languages.

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