I know my place*

“I think the invitation can go out as it is, you will simply have to replace ‘..a unique opportunity’ by ‘….another opportunity’ because the faculty had other opportunities previously and they will even get others to advance in their profession”.

I looked at the sentence in question in the invitation.  It was harmless enough, and appropriate to the context:

“Please join us for this unique opportunity to advance in your profession!”

I was stumped.   I thought about my French and my Swahili which, as good as they are, can’t hold a candle to what a native speaker might say. I knew it, and any native speaker knew it.   I would never even contemplate attempting to correct a native speaker of any language.    Clearly, I was in new territory.   It was also probable that  she was confusing the meaning of “unique” (aka “special”) in English with the meaning of “unique” (aka “only”) in French.

More vexing was the fact that the speaker was my new supervisor in a cultural setting where questioning authority is frowned upon.    Yet I had been hired specifically to help faculty at the university improve their English.  Should I correct her, or make the requested change without comment?

Language politics in Africa has always been a complicated affair.  Differences between ethnic groups, usually reflected by their use of different languages have been, and still are, the source of many conflicts on the continent.   Colonialism added a new variable into the already potentially volatile mix.  While the colonial languages such as French and English did give people a language to use that wasn’t associated with an ethnic rival, they were now languages belonging to an oppressor.   After independence, they retain the dubious distinction of still being the key to access into the international business community.   One could say that linguistic oppression has replaced political oppression but, as far as I can tell, there is really no way out of this linguistic injustice but to go through it.  The world does need a few common languages that everyone knows in order to conduct business done and even Rwandans freely admit that learning English is easier than learning Kinyarwanda.

Of course, language and societies being as mutable as they are,  this sociopolitical nightmare is being navigated in two ways.  First, English or French have evolved into distinct dialects in different regions of the world, all of which are mutually intelligible, although some people find certain accents more challenging than others.   However, until 2009, in all of these contexts,  at one time in the history of the region, the language was imposed upon a people by a colonial power and so, for at least some period of time, a “standard” dialect was used and taught to everyone.  Second, depending upon the context, local languages are being officially being recognized by governments of different countries in addition to the European language.   That is, the Western languages of international communication are now complemented by languages of national identity and unification.

In 2009, Rwanda undertook to do something that, as far as I know, has never been attempted in the history of the world.  The native population decided to replace the one historically colonial language, French, with another, English, in all sectors of the society — governance, business, education, health.   It was, and still is, an ambitious undertaking.   It was a decision that was not taken lightly.  But it was considered to be the most practical and effective way to promoted national development in a world economy that is dominated by English.

There is a fierce pride here in Rwanda’s independence and ability to guide their own destiny.    It is well-deserved, given that, during the genocide, they had to find their way out of a state of almost complete societal breakdown with absolutely no support from the outside.  In fact, it was Rwandans, exiled earlier in their lives by persecution that finally erupted into the fire of distrust and hatred that led to the genocide, who came back to liberate their families and friends from a tyranny so frightful that most are reluctant to speak of it.   Furthermore, if the history books are correct, not only did the West not come to the aid of  Rwandans being slaughtered by their neighbors, the French military and the Belgian clergy actually colluded in the atrocities.

Yet, Rwanda still cannot survive without support from the West, at least not yet.  And so, in an effort to distance themselves from previous colonial powers, an uneasy alliance is being forged between Rwanda and the English-speaking world.  I say “uneasy” because, on the one hand, while we speak the language that is considered by the country’s leadership to be the key to sustainable development and prosperity for all its citizens,  Rwandans do not want to lose the integrity of their unique cultural identity or give up their right to choose how to live out their own destiny because of any form of oppression,  linguistic or otherwise.

My new supervisor is not the only person who has corrected my English here.   Each time it happens, I reflect on the significance of the interaction for the person with whom I am speaking.  I still have no answers.   But I now think that it more to do with the social  significance that knowing English has for the speaker than about having, or even wanting, any particular degree of  fluency or accuracy.   I need to accept that, despite the fact I was brought here because of my expertise in English,  I am actually not considered by any Rwandan to be an expert on Rwanda or, by extension, on Rwandan English.  Furthermore, it is knowledge of English that situates you in the society, not your relative degree of accuracy in it.  By gracefully accepting corrections of my English without question, I am acknowledging  not  that I do not speak English well but rather that I do know my proper place in the complex sociolinguistic network  that defines Rwanda.  (Pronounced [rgwaanda] by the way.)

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.

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