Listen! What’s that sound bubbling up from the basement of the Ministry at the Presidency of East African Community Affairs (MPACEA) in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura?
It sounds like a large group of people talking away to themselves in English. Is it some kind of foreign meditation group? Or perhaps a cocktail party organized by the British embassy?
Far from it. It’s a group of men and women sat at computer terminals learning how to speak English so that Burundi will not be linguistically challenged by the dominance of English as the language of business in the East African Community.
“We knew we would have to learn English to integrate with the EAC,” said MPACEA minister Hafsa Mossi. “Our government recognised the need to add English to our language abilities so now we have an English Language Laboratory in the basement.”
She jokes (in English) with a group of students emerging from the basement. “How did it go?” she asks. “It was hard at first, but it is getting easier every time I come,” says one male student, with barely a trace of an accent.
The first students, in a programme supported by TradeMark East Africa (TMEA), were ministers, permanent secretaries and civil servants, all of whom will add some knowledge of English to the local language, Kirundi, and French, a leftover from Colonial times.
The programme, carried out by Williams Academy of the United States, aims to train up 2200 Burundians in groups of about 300 students with three-month intensive classes. “We face a very serious challenge in today’s EAC,” said the Williams Academy National Director, Ambassador Jeremie Ndayiziga. “How can our civil servants be ready to chair an important EAC meeting if they don’t have English skills?? They will, before long.”
English and Swahili dominate the official languages of the five EAC members. Tanzania’s official languages are Swahili and English, Kenya’s are English and Swahili, Uganda’s are English and Swahili although Luganda is overtaking the latter; in Rwanda they speak Kinyarwanda, English and French.
“We think that only about 15% of Burundians speak French properly and we have to equal that percentage with English or do better pretty quickly. The problem is not learning a language, it’s practicing it,” said Ndayiziga.
The government accepted the language challenge when it joined the EAC in 2011 and now English is taught in primary and secondary schools whereas it was restricted to secondary schools previously. But French remains, for now, a language of instruction at the University.
“We mustn’t abandon French. We are a bridge between East African and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is largely French-speaking, so we have to master English as well, not suppress it,” the Williams director added.
Another plank of the programme is support to the media. With TradeMark East Africa (TMEA)’s help, the most popular private weekly newspaper, IWACU, now publishes an Inside East Africa supplement of four pages to get its readership to use the language of EAC business.
“We need to help Burundians have a voice in English,” explained Editor Antoine Kaburahe. “We are not going to get very far with French as our main foreign language. We need to adapt our language skills just as much as our economy, he said.
IWACU (Our House) is the main private newspaper, with its own website and monthly magazine and is looking to hook up with other media houses in the region in an exchange programme so that reporters can inform their audience how life at grassroots level really is.
We sent a reporter by bus to Kampala with Burundian traders to see how they managed and report back on the kind of problems and opportunities that our traders get when they go to Uganda to buy goods to sell here.
It was a very successful programme that hit home. It was about ordinary life, not grand projects or distant treaties. TradeMark East Africa (TMEA)’s support has allowed us to talk about integration as it affects everyday life, the Editor added.
Burundi’s people need to have a voice in English. They need to speak the language of integration. We are flying the English flag with our East Africa section thanks to TradeMark East Africa (TMEA), and we’re hoping that it will attract foreign advertisers too – in English.