One of the most pleasant aspects of our work as ambassadors and High Commissioners is constantly marvelling at just how many young Kenyans are keen to learn French.
Indeed, in Kenya, there is no need to be in a francophone embassy or High Commission to hear people speaking French. Nearly 40,000 youth learn it from kindergarten to universities countrywide, often gathering around francophone clubs.
What is “Francophonie”?
Very simply, Francophonie is the term that designates the ensemble of people, organisations and governments that share the use of French on a daily basis. And in this lies the possibility of economic opportunities on the global scale, for the young Kenyans who are already busy perfecting their written as well as spoken French.
In its 50 year, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie — an organisation set up specifically to promote Francophonie — has developed a vast network of 88 countries, including some where French is not an official language.
This is what we are celebrating this month (The International Day of the Francophonie is marked every March 20). It is most unfortunate that the public health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the rich variety of programmes, which had long been prepared for Francophonie month. But there is always next year.
A good knowledge of French opens tremendous opportunities for the speaker. Students can immerse themselves in a broad and diversified francophone literature before finding a job or starting a business. With more French-speaking entrepreneurs, Kenya’s blossoming tourism sector can even be more attractive to more among the 235 million people who speak French daily.
French can also help in securing a diplomatic job in international organisations, in UN Environment or UN Habitat, where workers are using it as one of the six United Nations working languages.
It can also open doors for East Africans to their own region as it is spoken in Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, DR Congo, Madagascar, Mauritius, The Seychelles and Rwanda, as well as in 80 other countries that are part of La Francophonie in the five continents.
The visionary efforts by a majority of African governments to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) — a single continental market for goods and services with free movement of business persons and investments — will open up free trade throughout Africa. Notably, multilingual people are best-placed to serve the business organisations which seek to take advantage of the opportunities the ACFTA will bring.
Like any other language, French is not one-sided; learning it paves the way for cultural exchanges.
With a solid level of French, Kenyans can teach English or Kiswahili in francophone countries — as is the case for the more than 60 language assistants in France who make French youth discover Kenyan cultures and traditions. Or they might increase their chances when applying for scholarship programmes in French-speaking countries.
Already well established in Nairobi, the Alliance Francaise facility has been the launching pad for many young Kenyans aspiring to a career in the creative arts.
Engaging in a dialogue with francophone countries, through the Organisation internationale de la francophonie (OIF), is also a way to join a global conversation. Founded in 1970 in Niamey, Niger, the OIF is a platform for exchanges, responsible for promoting and disseminating the cultures of its members and intensifying cultural, scholar and technical cooperation.
Francophonie also works to promote peace, democracy and human rights, values we can all identify with regardless of our proficiency in the French language.
Further, OIF supports access to education to fight against exclusion, discrimination and poverty for sustainable, inclusive and equitable development.
By 2070, there will be an estimated 500-800 million French-speaking people, the majority of them youth living in Africa.
This is both a great hope and an immense challenge for the entire French-speaking movement: Hope because the future of the French language has never looked brighter, and a challenge because these youths must be offered prospects.
This is why the theme chosen by Tunisia for the next summit of the OIF, in Tunis in December, sticks to the preoccupations of Africa and its youth: “Connectivity in diversity: Digital, a vehicle for development and solidarity in the French-speaking space”.
The ambassadors of Tunisia, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Morocco; the High Commissioner of Canada; and the Honorary Consul of Benin to Kenya.