Uganda’s glorification of English might be the unexpected barrier in EAC frenzy

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

On this, one of the suits in whatever relevant ministry has got to take the lead if anything is going to crack.

What is the most spoken language in Africa? An internet scan to that question brought up English, with close to 240 million speakers. This was followed by French with over 120 million speakers and Swahili with more than 100 speakers. It is not strange that the top two have the benefit of colonial education and religious structures to thank for their scale. Swahili is also not much different with its Arabic and Islamic influence.

You might have heard the news already – the Democratic Republic of Congo has been admitted into the East Africa Community. Predictably, all the talk and analysis of the development is focused on inter-state trade and security. With its close to 90 million citizens, an overabundance of mineral wealth and endless cocktail of political violence, the DRC poses different circumstances to a region whose sociopolitical dynamics have always been complicated.

What is not being talked about a lot is the opportunity to be found in language as a commodity if you like. The internet couldn’t help but it is unlikely that in Uganda, you will find any more than 0.5 percent of the population – outside of the army – speaks Swahili. It is probably even more embarrassing if you tried to count the number of French speakers.

So, whereas there is justified excitement about the opening up of new markets, without investing in language, the opportunities will be difficult to tap into, especially for the ordinary folks. There are going to be opportunities, especially in Eastern DRC, in nearly every sector from education, to health, to ICT, trade, media and entertainment, construction etc. After the diplomats and bureaucrats are done throwing out the usual barriers – hopefully this time – one of the keys to unlocking these opportunities will likely be language – and that’s a key that is something we don’t really have.

This challenge is also something you are likely to notice with the ascension of Anglophones in international organizations and agencies. Unlike the Francophones who also labor to learn English, and therefore easily find cross-border and senior management opportunities, the rest of us with only our English distinctions often hit the ceiling. The complexity with the EAC is that sometimes, it feels like the integration is an inevitability because of the social and cultural ties that citizens from all the member states enjoy. In a twisted way, this is owed to migration and the turbulent histories of these individual countries which forced – and continue to – significant numbers of their citizens across the border to seek refuge. Except for Tanzania, the rest of us have had our fair share of relocations. Uganda’s checkered history of Idi Amin and Milton Obote which forced citizens to seek safety in Kenya and Tanzania; Rwanda’s revolution in 1959 and genocide in 1994; Burundi and the DRC’s political violence struggles are all well documented.

Consequently, the people have learnt to live together, more times in harmony than not. Which is why it sometimes feels like this integration thing is a waste of time because in many ways, it is already happening. But credit to the leaders – especially Uganda’s President Museveni – who for whatever selfish reasons, keep pushing the agenda even and especially from the top.

Every so often, you are likely to hear debate about what should be Uganda’s national language. The arguments are usually shallow because they seem to suggest that a country can only have one official language. Zimbabwe has up to 16 official languages. So, the debate should not be substitutive because that does not solve today’s and certainly not tomorrow’s problem.

We often talk about preparing young people for the world (or future) of work and limit it to skilling but language as a skill is as important. Uganda, whose population can’t speak French or any decent Swahili is the one that is likely to lose. Those two languages are the most popular in the DRC – but also the commonest among the other members. However, they are only taught as an option in Uganda’s secondary schools – at least those elite enough to afford the service.

On this, one of the suits in whatever relevant ministry has got to take the lead if anything is going to crack. Short term, you can make a killing from running language centres for adults looking to make the most of this realigned East African map. Long term, the responsibility falls on those with the responsibility to teach.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. @Rukwengye