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.