The road to the border with Burundi today – to be handed over at the frontier to my good friend Clement.
Last time I travelled south on this road it was with Pasteur André, an Anglican priest delegated to see me safely to the frontier. He spoke no English and I made the mistake of saying , “Vous parlez Francais?” This brought comments on many matters as we journeyed; not having a clue about most of what was being said, I mumbled a meek ‘oui’ to questions which left me completely lost.
Handed over to Clement on the Rwandan side of the border, being able to converse in English came as a great relief. As we crossed the bridge over the river marking the international boundary, Clement turned to me. “You didn’t study at Mukono in Uganda, did you?”
“No, I’ve never been to Uganda in my life”.
“You told Andrew you had studied there”.
“Ah”, I said, “that will be my French. Well, more precisely, my lack of French.”
He speaks at least three, probably four, possibly more, languages fluently and slips seamlessly from one to another.
“Where did you learn French?”
“I didn’t. I did it until I was 13 and never learned anymore. There was never much need for it. I can cope on holiday”.
A shake of the head, and we walked on.
Many Africans require three languages just to get through daily life. Being monoglot would be adequate for life in rural villages. Education, business, the media, travel and numerous other activities, demand knowledge of at least one European language.
Perhaps it’s a lack of exposure to other languages; more honestly, perhaps it’s just plain laziness. Having spent twenty odd summer holidays in France, a stab at something in French will generally bring a sympathetic response from the hotelier or restaurateur, who will draw upon their reserves of English to avoid hearing their national language being further desecrated.
Knowing that the Gallic resolve will crumble and they will cave in and speak English, there is not the incentive to learn. What would compel progress would be knowing that there were to be more journeys with Pasteur André. If a 45 minute car journey was sufficient to allow mistakenly claiming to having studied theology in Uganda, any further travel could be a severe embarrassment. Necessity is a very efficient master.
Embarrassment will be avoided today. My companion is Viateur, who once had to sit with me in a clinic in Kigali translating to the staff the symptoms of my food poisoning.