Not a lot of people can say their grandmother is their hero and role model but, I can and I do. Like many Rwandans, I was born outside my country, in a Bantu environment where languages were in abundant supply. I remember as a child at my school; if I turned left to a friend, I would speak one language, and if I turned right, I would speak an entirely different language - it was like the Olympics. But, neither of these languages were my mother-tongue, Kinyarwanda.
However, that was at school. At home, after my grandmother had noticed that my brother and I could speak several languages except Kinyarwanda, she passed an in-house ‘law’: Kinyarwanda was to be spoken at all times. At first, my older brother and I thought that we were being punished through no fault of our own; besides, how were we expected to communicate in a language we barely knew? It was a nightmare. In fact, many evenings we remained silent, we did not have a starting point to a conversation. The only way we could find solace was to read books or watch television – all of which were in English.
Thankfully, children are quick learners; gradually, as our grandmother taught us a few words and also made us listen to evening bulletins on Radio Muhabura every night, we also picked up a few words from here and there – in exile, Rwandans were everywhere. So, as a routine, my brother and I would go to school, speak English as well as other languages but, when we got through the front door and inside our home, Kinyarwanda lessons would be in motion, immediately. And after a few years of practice, my brother and I graduated as elementary Kinyarwanda speakers, certified by none other than my grandmother. There was no ceremony, but the reward was the ability to comfortably initiate a conversation and, even strike a joke! I was content with that.
In early 1995, a few months after the Rwanda Patriotic Front / Army had put an end to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, my brother and I wanted to visit our motherland for the first time. However, before we could set off in the company of a relative, I remember my grandmother holding my hand and telling me: “Junior, when you visit your motherland for the first time, you will also be able to speak your mother tongue. I taught you and your brother Kinyarwanda so that one day, when you return home, those who exiled our people back in 1959 can hear you and other young Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda. When they do, from wherever they will be, they will realise that back then when they looted and burned our homes, killed our families, and drove us into exile, they may have succeeded at breaking our bodies, but they never ever succeeded at breaking our Rwandan spirit. Our culture, language, and traditions remained intact.”
Today, I speak more than four languages including Kinyarwanda. For me, if there is one single factor that can help explain why I have fallen in love with my country time and again, it is the ability to speak my mother tongue. This ability to speak Kinyarwanda, even though I have spent most of my life outside Rwanda, helps me to recognise and give value to my Rwandan identity. It helps me to connect with my people both at home and abroad, and it helps me maintain my culture as well as my heritage. The ability to speak Kinyarwanda has also helped me to maintain important links to family.
Looking forward, I also know that when I eventually decide to return home, Kinyarwanda will be an asset when I look to create or seek employment and even settle in a local community.
Many years ago as a child, I was none the wiser when it came to truly understanding why my grandmother was very strict with me and my brother. I did not fully appreciate the value of speaking my mother-tongue in a foreign country - it was irrelevant in my school life and much of my child life. And besides, I would have triggered the mockery of calling me a foreigner, even though I was nothing but. I found English to be the safest possible language. It was foreign, yes, but it was a colonial language, and we Africans place no stigma on foreign languages as long as they are the native languages of our former colonial masters. Instead, we tend to elevate whoever speaks the most in our societies. But, that’s a story for another day.
Fortunately, my grandmother was there to help me recognise the true value of speaking Kinyarwanda. Now, I am aware that most of the rationale behind speaking Kinyarwanda cannot be linked to monetary value, but for me, there is more to monetary value. There is culture, heritage, history, education, and many more reasons why one’s native language is so important.
Today, from where I am in the diaspora, I know many other people, young as well as old, who wish they had someone of the same resilience and vision as my grandmother to help them or inspire them to connect or reconnect with Rwanda. For me, it was Kinyarwanda back when I was a kid. For you, it could be something entirely different or, the same. But, whatever it is, discover it and, run with it. You will be glad you did.
All things considered, I am not promising smooth sailing journey. Of course, there will be challenges. But, inaction should not be an option. In fact, I am reminded of Dr Martin Luther King who once said that - if you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward. I am forever thankful to my grandmother for the gift of Kinyarwanda!
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