African viewpoint: 'Thank goodness for colonialism'

English language teacher training session in Rwanda - 2010

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, London-based Ugandan writer Joel Kibazo considers the mother tongue of empire.

There are some moments in life that keep coming back to you.

Years ago I boarded a flight from Bangalore, India to Bombay, now Mumbai.

The man sat next to me started chatting and then he said: "Thank goodness for colonialism."

I was stunned by his statement and I moved into combat mode to take him on.

But then I had second thoughts and sat back and listened.

"You see if it was not for colonialism and the British in this case, you, an African, and I, an Indian, would not have been able to communicate and have a good conversation."

What could I say?

More than 50 years since sub-Saharan Africa started down the road to independence and self governance, we have continued to conduct our affairs in the languages of the colonialists.

Business talks

For a long time there appeared to be parity between French and English, with Portuguese of course spoken in territories that were ruled by Portugal.

Despite the gathering of many African leaders over the weekend in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital, Kinshasa, for the Francophonie summit of French-speaking countries, there is no getting away from the reality that English has finally won the day and is now the international language.

It is a reality that the more nimble Francophone leaders have come to see as the way to boost the prospects of their countries in an increasingly global world, a world dominated by the mighty United States.

As I travel around Africa from Mozambique to Senegal, I have noticed the increasing use of English.

Rwanda's move to adopt English as an official language was initially seen as a result of many of the country's post-genocide leaders having returned home from Uganda where they had been educated in English, the main medium of education.

However, the country did not stop there.

As a Commonwealth official, I well remember the frisson that went round the room when it was first mentioned that President Paul Kagame wanted his country to join the Commonwealth, as well as being a member of Francophonie.

What would the French say, some asked?

Image caption Revelations about the Mau Mau crackdown show the dark side of colonialism

Yet Rwanda persisted and was not only seen as a bit of a darling for countries such as the United Kingdom, which has supported the government with financial assistance but the country has also formed strong relationships, particularly in business, through the Commonwealth.

In three of the five members of the East African community of which Rwanda is a member, business is mostly conducted in English.

Seeing the success of Rwanda has triggered interest in its neighbour Burundi, a French-speaking country which too has signalled its wish to join the Commonwealth.

I expect English will soon become a must language for all students.

Such is the power of the US and its economy that anyone who wants a piece of the action has to speak the language of the mighty dollar.

Africans wanting to become global players appear to be bowing to this dictum.

There is little that I admire about the colonial era, and the recent revelations in a British court about the tortures and horror colonial officers visited on some Kenyans in their fight against the Mau Mau, tell you a lot about the so-called civilised world.

Yet for all that, there is no getting away from the fact that we will continue using the languages of the colonialists but increasingly that language will be English.

I have come to agree with my travelling companion on that flight in India all those years ago.

After all in most cases, it is still one of the foreign languages that I have to use to speak to my sister or brother from another part of Africa.

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