“We realised that whenever we have an anglophone comedy night, everybody was there. But when we have a francophone night, attendance was low,” said Kimenyi of his “Comedy Knights” troupe and their shows in the Rwandan capital.
French, once the foreign language of choice in the former Belgian colony, could get a much-needed boost this week when President Emmanuel Macron visits the East African country where English has gained favour in recent times.
Macron’s trip, the first by a French leader since 2010, follows a quarter-century of diplomatic tension between the two countries over France’s role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
In the frosty intervening years, French language and culture fell out of official favour.
Though still widely spoken, and intermingled with the national language Kinyarwanda, French was formally replaced in schools by English more than a decade ago, and many young Rwandans cannot speak it.
Etienne Gatanazi, a former French-language news anchor on national television, said most channels no longer broadcast in French “because they consider English programmes more attractive”.
“Even the national radio no longer reads news in French, while on national TV French news was pushed to air after 10 pm when people are already asleep. This definitely has had an impact,” he told AFP.
Kimenyi, the comedian and director, said they made the business decision to ditch their French-language skits in 2017 because of low turnout.
“We still perform in French but for specific audiences,” he said.
Out of favour
After Rwanda won independence from Belgium, French remained in widespread use as the country fostered close ties with France.
But its influence waned after the genocide when Rwanda accused France of supporting the radical Hutu regime and not doing enough to stop the killing of some 800,000 Rwandans mainly from the Tutsi minority.
The accusations lingered for years, straining bilateral relations to breaking point. Diplomatic ties were cut off in November 2006, not resuming until three years later.
In the post-genocide era, French found itself in competition with English, the language spoken by many of the Tutsi refugees returning to Rwanda from other anglophone parts of Africa who formed the country’s new administration.
President Paul Kagame, himself educated in Uganda, designated English an official language in Rwanda’s 2003 constitution, along with Kinyarwanda and French.
Then in 2008, French was replaced by English as the compulsory language of instruction in schools.
Rwandan officials have rejected suggestions that politics drove French from favour.
Rather it was seen as desirable to train young Rwandans in a language seen as essential for the economic development of a country at the crossroads of French- and English-speaking Africa.
In 2018, French was spoken by 724,000 of Rwanda’s 12.5 million people — or roughly six percent of the population, according to the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF).
It remains the most spoken foreign language in the country. Kinyarwanda is spoken by almost all Rwandans, so most do not require an alternative, unlike other African countries where several local languages coexist.
Ties between France and Rwanda are slowly on the mend.
Both countries separately published landmark reports in recent months concluding that France bears a heavy responsibility for the events of 1994, going some way to easing historic grievances.
The thaw could herald a revival for the French language and the arts.
During his visit, Macron will open a new Francophone Culture Centre, seven years after the closure of the state-run French Institute in Kigali.
“Its mission will be to promote not only French culture, but also all the resources of the Francophonie, including artists from the region,” according to a statement from the French presidency.