Rwanda's decision to ditch French for English is yet another blow for the most wonderful language
It gives me no pleasure, but the trend is inevitable. Even when the world goes astray, as now, the discussions of its chaos are carried out in English
Rwanda is a small and not especially influential country, but it has made a decision which, I fear, may have consequences disproportionate to its size and importance. It has officially ditched French and adopted English as its language of international communication, and as the language taught in its schools. True, Rwanda had reasons other than linguistic to snub French. It still blames France for, in effect, not preventing the Hutus from massacring 800,000 Tutsis. But that resentment has taken second place as a motive for dumping the language. The main reason is business, as was made clear by Rwanda's trade and industry minister, in dismissive terms: "French is spoken only in France, some parts of West Africa, parts of Canada and Switzerland." By contrast, "English has emerged as a backbone for growth and development not only in the region but around the globe."
Last year, Rwanda became a member of the East African Community, joining Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi, only the last of which remains Francophone. But how long before it too succumbs to the lure of English? Next year, Rwanda is expected to be admitted to the Commonwealth. Algeria and Madagascar have made overtures to join. They haven't done so because they love English culture or want to play cricket. Theirs is a calculated business decision to enter a club which will offer them the best opportunities, and if that club speaks English, they'll learn the language.
It gives me no pleasure to see a magnificent culture and the most wonderful language in the world cast aside for the sake of a few more bucks, but the trend is inevitable. Even when the world goes astray, as now, the discussions of its chaos are carried out in English. President Sarkozy managed to get a lot of French heard, but that was only because France is the current holder of the EU presidency. Any European crisis next year, when the Czechs and Swedes are in charge, is likely to be discussed primarily in English. There was one small consolation for the French last week: the Nobel prize for literature went to JMG Le Clézio, a Frenchman.
Everyone joined in the chorus: the World Bank, the IMF, a selection of world leaders and ministers, various humanitarian and development organisations.
The message was unanimous, the sincerity behind it evident. Whatever financial turmoil we're going through, aid to the poor developing countries, especially in Africa, must not suffer.
Alas, that is not a promise that will be kept. Those countries have not suffered direct hits from the collapse of their banks, nor from the madness of fluctuating share prices. But they are dependant on the generosity of donors, whether richer states, corporations, foundations or individuals. My faith in human goodwill is not so strong as to believe that people, institutions and states with reduced incomes are going to give priority to African poverty. They will cut down on investments and donations, withdraw from projects and erect even stricter protectionist trade barriers. At a time when the rising cost of food and fuel means that poor countries need more help, they will receive less.
Am I being too pessimistic? Here's a fact, from before the current upheavals. In 2005, the G8 nations undertook to double their aid to Africa by 2010. A few months ago, Kofi Annan revealed that at the current rate of progress that target would fall short by $40bn.
Those of you who watch BBC News 24 will know that each hourly bulletin begins with a fast-moving sequence of silent clips showing various BBC reporters at work. The sequences can last as long as a minute, but there are many different versions and combinations, and while senior reporters such as Matt Frei and Huw Edwards seem to be in all of them, the lesser ranks have their fleeting two seconds of limelight irregularly.
Here follows my sad tale. The package quite often includes very short clips of two women reporters; sometimes only one of them appears, sometimes neither. One, bespectacled, wears a red coat; the other a short-sleeved olive-green blouse. The redcoat addresses the camera for a second and then swivels round and points energetically to something more or less behind her; the olive blouse is seen for a second talking to a group and then she too swivels and points. I first noticed them because of their similarity of pointing style. That interest imperceptibly became a crush, not on the women themselves but on their near-identical movements. That interest developed into a contest. Which woman would appear more often when I happened to be watching? I placed bets, with and against myself. (Ladbrokes wasn't interested.) It has been a mesmerically close race.
At one point Olive went ahead by three appearances and I feared that Red had been sacked, perhaps because some new BBC executive had found her swivel-and-point technique wanting. But she reappeared, and gradually caught up. Last week, the pointers were tied. I realised I had to put an end to the contest when I found myself cheating, breaking a cardinal rule. I was watching news bulletins I didn't want to see, just for their opening sequences. Of course the reporters' appearances on those occasions were disqualified, but the fact that they happened at all disturbed me. I decided to impose a sudden death climax.
On one bulletin over the weekend Olive was there but Red wasn't. The victor received no prize except in my estimation. The main winner was my sanity.
• This week Marcel saw In the Red and Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney at London's Young Vic theatre: "An absorbing semi-myth morality love story play performed (unnecessarily) in four inches of water. Abram Wilson plays terrific trumpet." He read The Unfree French: "Richard Vinen's masterly account of France under German occupation."
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