Dans la Francophonie

So now I’m in Burundi for a couple of weeks, on business.

I’ll probably do most of my Burundi-blogging over at my home blog. But here’s a thing: Burundi is part of La Francophonie and, yup, everyone here speaks French.

Okay, not everybody. French is introduced in primary school, but it’s not taught intensively until secondary school. Since only about 10% of Burundian kids finish secondary school, French is very much the language of the educated elite. (Which in Burundi is disproportionately ethnic Tutsis. But that’s another story.) But French is the language of law and government and formal public discourse and, up until now, it’s how Burundi talks to the world. It’s everyone’s second language here; English is, so far, a pretty distant third.

Certain things are sort of clicking into place here. The biggest is why France has traditionally been so… um… engaged, with Francophone Africa. That never made much sense to me. I mean, France’s economic and strategic interests here are pretty minimal. But now I see it. If you’re French, it must be incredibly refreshing to be in a place where French is the language of learning and prestige, where everyone who matters speaks French, and where there’s no need to break out the English for clarification. If I were a French businessman, diplomat or military officer, this would make me really interested in these countries.

Another interesting point: they speak good French here. The accent can get funny sometimes, but it’s clear and precise and uses all those wiggly bits in the subjunctive.

Also… I’m not sure how to put this… educated Burundians have a whole host of tics that I associate, correctly or not, with Francophone Europeans. I met with a former minister today, who kept numbering his topics and writing them down on pads while stabbing the air with his pen. Remove the melanin, and he could have been an enarque sitting in a Directorate office in Brussels, explaining a new initiative on standardization.

English is creeping in. Like everywhere, it’s the language of crappy action movies and pop music and fun. And one day, it may do more than creep. Burundi is a little unusual in that everyone speaks the same native language, Kirundi. (As compared to, say, Senegal or Nigeria or Kenya, where there are two or three or four major local languages plus lots more little ones.) So, French isn’t needed as a common language to bind the peoples together. They could switch to teaching the kids English tomorrow; the only thing that’s keeping French in power is tradition and inertia. On the other hand, tradition and inertia are pretty powerful, so Burundi might stay Francophone for a long time to come.

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About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

11 thoughts on “Dans la Francophonie

  1. Few things:

    – Rwanda adopted English as an official language in addition to French and Kinyarwanda. Yes, it’s partially a payback to France but also influenced by the fact that most of the government grew up in Uganda.

    – In Senegal, 80% of the population is fluent in Wolof and the rest probably speak it too. So it doesn’t fit next to Kenya and Nigeria.

    – The French “engagement” is complicated. There are business interests, local ones which happen to be very good at manipulating the local embassies which in turn influence Paris. Add to that personnal freidnships here and there and of course the Grand Policy of mantaining French prestige and you get that result.

  2. What is happening in Rwanda? Is English taking over from French, are they coexisting, or does this mean in practice that Kinyarwanda is the default.

    Also, what is the practical effect on the ground of the claim and counterclaim of genocide and murder between France and Rwanda? (Rwanda seems to have the best of it so far by the available evidence.) Is anyone in France reconsidering their travel plans?

  3. http://ipsnews.net/africa/interna.asp?idnews=25536

    I don’t know if English is taking over from French but French is definetly loosing ground slowly, where it matter: in government.
    Among the people, Kinyarwanda has always been the default and it’s probably regaining some ground too. We shouldn’t forget that Swahili is widely spoken too.

    I don’t think anyone in France is reconsidering anything. I don’t see anyone arresting an official of a Security Council Permanent Member because of some support they gave to horrible people.

    That said, yes, of course, Rwanda has the best evidence, even if it probably doesn’t cancel out some of the French accusations. (of course, the stupidest French accusation is to link Kagame to the genocide by accusing him of shooting down whatshisname’s plane. that’s a serious case of blaming the victim).

  4. I posted another reply but I think it was lost somewhere in Blog Comment Purgatory.

    As far as the language thing, Kinyarwanda is the main everyday one and has been forever. It probably got a boost in the official sphere since 2002 but I don’t think the fact that the law is written in it and then translated in French and English changed anything about how it’s debated in the parliament or drafted in the ministries.

    About French and English, my understanding is that there’s 2 dynamics. On one hand, the pre-existing intellectual infrastructure was Francophone. The teachers, most of the public servants, etc.. So most schools have curriculum in French with some intensive English classes. And Public service is probably the same. But on the other hand, the rulers, the top elite are english-speakers who learned French. So English is probably used at the top level of government and gains ground from there.

  5. It’s interesting that French is still so successful in Francophone Africa; I visited Laos earlier this year and was expecting to encounter far more French than I did – yes, a lot of road signs in Vientiane were in French and not in English, but it seemed that while most of the Lao people had some English, very few could speak any French at all (a fact that was confirmed by French travellers I spoke to), and apparently the same is true across former French Indochina. Why has French been so much more successful at retaining a foothold in Africa than in Asia?

  6. Geoff I’m not an expert but Laos gained its independence in 1949 while African states remained French colonies until the 1960s or even 70s (Djibouti). Then the French maintained their interests (political, economic) in Africa while in Indochina they had to retreat after Dien Bien Phu. Also consider that in Indochina the communist regimes were not particularly friendly to the west (France included).

  7. Burundi like Rwanda in fact have not reason to speak french because they were never a Frecnh Colony. In only because they were near Zaire.

  8. @ Geoff, what Paul says. I visited Laos a couple of years ago and French has definitely lost a lot of ground. The Communist government discouraged its use for a generation, so hardly anyone under the age of 45 speaks it well. They’re neutral now, and as you say there are some road signs and such, but it looks like French will gradually fade there in favor of other second languages — English and Chinese.

    @Random, I agree with your comment except the part about the government elite speaking English. Without exception, everyone I’ve met speaks good French. I’d say that perhaps 20% have good English and another 30%-40% have some English. But about half have no English at all. Even at the highest levels, French still dominates.

    Laws, BTW are debated in Kinyarwanda with occasional excursions into French, but written in French. Official government publications are a mixture — public proclamations are usually in Kinya, for instance, but the Official Gazette is French. Laws are definitely not translated into English — this was a big problem for us!

    cheers,

    Doug M.

  9. Pingback: La Francophonie again | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

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