Learning French to work in Africa?
Oui. In 2010, when our team was in earnest in our search for a long-term location (we settled on Burundi December 2010), we were drawn especially to places that not many people were working. The main reasons for this were that we had been given a community, and we felt that this gave us increased capacity for "emptier" places (as expats went), as well as wanting to minimize dependency issues.
We talked with people all over the continent, and one of the first observations I made was that there were so few people working in Francophone Africa. This piqued my curiosity generally about Francophone Africa. Here is what I learned.
Depending on how you count it, there are 31 countries in Africa with French as an official language. This represents 355 million people, with an expected rise to 750 million by 2050. This is in contrast to 24 African countries that have English as an official language. The number of people in the Anglophone countries is a bit higher overall, but this is largely due to the fact that Nigerians outnumber the grains of sand on the shore.
I don't have numbers on the relative spiritual needs of the two language groups, but I think it's safe to say that the Francophone countries are more likely to be Muslim and/or unreached by Christianity.
And interestingly, there seems to be a significant correlation with physical/humanitarian need. For example, the Human Development Index, published annually by the UN, is meant to provide a global measure of how "developed" a country is. By this measurement, 7 of the 10 least developed countries in the world are in Francophone Africa. Burundi is 3rd from the bottom. Liberia and Sierra Leone (Anglophone) as well as Mozambique (Portugese) round out the list.
And yet, these are the forgotten disasters of the world. How often does one hear about Niger, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, or Guinea?
So why are so few people there? I suspect it's because so many missionaries come from Anglophone-predominate countries (US, Canada, Australia, UK, South Korea...), and learning another language is just plain hard. (You can trust us on that one.)
Given our tools as Christian physicians and missionaries, French study is essential for what God has called us to in Burundi. However, if we are graced to see our work there completed in 15 years, French language ability will open all kinds of wonderful doors for amazingly needy places.
And I've become a somewhat unabashed advocate for this as well. If you care greatly about the needs of Africa, and are interested in long-term work, consider French. It may not be the same lingua franca that it was fifty years ago, but it is still useful for much more than a good vacation to Provence (though that sounds nice as well).