Friday, December 3, 2010

Rwandan Culture 101

Because I am generally not an attentive person, and because I live in an America-land compound, I got very excited today when I obtained a "Rwandan Culture 101" document from my Peace Corps friend. Peace Corps people are also actually trained about culture, social things, etc. Personally, I've been mostly functioning in social situations by making a fool of myself -- mostly what I've picked up on is Rwandan humour which is pun-heavy and make-fun-of-muzungu-heavy. I've been relying on the second.

But to no further ado...if you've been curious...these are apparently the cultural norms of the country where I've been living for 4 months, followed with my commentary in italics:


Greetings are probably the most important formality to Rwandans. Even children hold out their hands when they see someone they know (or want to know) for a handshake or high five. Don’t be surprised if random kids or adults (especially old ladies) come up to you and hug you—you get used to it.
When you first meet someone, you go into a loose hug and touch your cheeks together 3 times (starting with right cheek to right cheek) then finish the greeting by briefly shaking right hands. For less formal meetings or to greet someone you already know, you can just shake hands or touch shoulders then finish with a hand shake/loose hand grab.

You must greet someone you know/say goodbye to someone you are leaving with at least a handshake every time. Although everybody shakes hands all the time, it's the limp-fish handshake...I think their lives would be consumed by shaking hands if they actually gave firm handshakes...but limp-fish handshakes still give me shivers and now nightmares.

I’ll teach you some basic greetings in Kinyarwanda which will make people extremely happy and scream “Eeeeeehhhhhhh bazi Kinyarwanda!” (aka, they know Kinyarwanda). Then you can just smile, nod and say “yego, ndakizi” which translates to yes, I know it. You’ll fool them in no time! Interesting...just learned that's what that means.


When someone invites you to eat or drink something, it is very impolite to decline and implies that you do not trust them not to make you sick. Be expecting everyone whose home you enter to offer you a Fanta, water or beer. warm

Don’t sniff or smell your food! I know you’ll want to, but it’s highly culturally inappropriate. If you do be prepared for a lot of quizzitive and/or angry looks. Didn't know this

It is also impolite to leave a lot of food on your plate, so try to keep your host/hostess from piling food on your plate by serving yourself. Otherwise, be expecting a 6” high pile of food to get through. Though I’m not sure if we’ll be dining at anyone’s house, so you might not have to worry about this. This fact was especially painful on my birthday when the family I was visiting kept piling on food.

It is not standard practice to tip at restaurants or bars in Rwanda, but I usually leave a little something behind in places that I frequent. I used to do this...and then I saw a waitress wearing a sweater that I lost. That $70 will suffice as my tips for the rest of the year.

If you order a bottled beverage (fanta or beer) the waitress must open the drink in front of you. Poisoning is taken very seriously around here. Knew that they always opened it in front of me. Didn't know why.

Traditional foods

The Rwandan Buffet: Towns are covered with them, these hole in the wall buffet restaurants that cost about $3. I’ll take you to my favorite one in Musanze, where you can pile your plate with starches (you’ll have a pick of fries, pasta, rice, plantains, cassava), beans, veggies, salad, fruit, and if you’re feeling like splurging, some meat. The trick is that you're only allowed to fill your plate once -- the "skyscrapers" that some Rwandans build require years of practicing the art of piling food.

Brockettes: Grilled meat on a stick. Usually goat (“ihene” in Kinyarwanda). But some places have beef, pork or even fish. Fish brouchette is my jam.

Akabenzi: Also known as…pig. Not sure if we’ll have this (since I nixed Butare from our itinerary) but it’s grilled pork mixed with onions and spices and it’s wonderful.

“Ibitoki” – plantains, usually cooked in a tomato or peanut sauce The peanut sauce is purple...took me a while to learn what it was.

“African tea” – made with a base of milk, hot Rwandan tea, sugar and ginger, a delicious favorite but very heavy and filling. If you’re at a small milk house (again not sure if we’ll go to one of these) it’s called “icyayi”. So yeah...I thought this was actually Chai...pronounced in a Rwandan way (adding extra syllables)

Rwandan snacks (Which way do you want it fried?):

• Samboussas – fried pastry with either veggies or ground meat, onions and spices inside aka...somossa

• Amandazi – fried balls of dough – kinda sweet, crunchy but soft, great dunked in icyayi aka...doughnut

• Chapatti – similar to a tortilla, but not. I make my own at home, not to brag or anything aka...tortilla

• Imineke – little bananas. Not fried. They’re tiny, sweet, and amazing. And the reason that I’ll probably never be able to eat a banana again when I return to the states. bananas


Rwandans dress conservatively, but as they say “smart”. Their clothes are clean! But they will wear the same outfit every day for 3 days. Haze would love it. You’ll see a huge difference between how people of a certain education or professional background dress (quite Westernized) and abaturage (village people) who will wear igitenge (traditional fabric) and plastic shoes (or no shoes at all). It’s a fascinating aspect of Rwandan culture, so make sure to observe people. Besides, they’ll be staring at you, why not stare back? Becuase it's awkward and I don't like staring back. I once thought that this would make them feel uncomfortable and look away. Turns out it just encourages them to stare more.

That being said, many Rwandans have a poor view of tourists because of their unkempt appearance and clothing. So, my only request is for the days we’re at the health centers and at the market in Musanze that you don’t look like dirty American hippies in tattered clothes or all “safari-ed out”. You know what I mean, right? Shoot...I've given in and have stopped tucking my shirts in etc.

Things that will make you go “huuuuh?!” but please don’t embarrass me by reacting too much: ...this was written for her parents

People pick their noses; intensely and constantly and in all contexts; even when you are having a full out conversation with them Have seriously NEVER noticed this
People don’t make lines and will push you out of the way; you’ll probably only notice this on the buses, but don’t worry, I’m Rwandan now so I’ll do my best to push ‘em out of the way first. There's also no sense of "women first"...actually...maybe it's "women last"?

There is no personal space. People will touch you as soon as they’ve met you, sit super close to you on the bus, possibly even with their arm around you or leg on yours. This is nice though because it means that it's also totally acceptable for you to curl up with your busmate and sleep on his shoulder.

People smell. Yes, some people smell good, but most don’t. I don’t really notice it anymore, but I’m sure you will. Be prepared. I still notice it.

You sit 4 to a row at minimum in mutatus (mini buses); not sure if we’ll get on any of these, but something to be aware of. They’re Kinyarwanda name means “let’s squeeze together” so you know…

People will call you muzungu, so just deal with it. Often it will be in amazement, but must often it will be in making fun of you or even being a little aggressive. Try to ignore it, but don’t worry too much about it.

People will stare. They will stop and stare, jaw gaping. If we are walking down the street we will attract a crowd, if we are sitting in a car we will attract a crowd, if we go to the market we will attract a crowd, if we visit a health center we will attract a crowd. For those 5 days in Rwanda you can officially consider yourself a celebrity. Embrace it! They will walk across the street just to be closer to you so they can stand and stare. They will run up in front of you just so they can turn around and stare. They will walk right next to you, staring.

Don’t feel bad when people, especially children or disabled people, beg or try to sell you trinkets. Just say no thank you (“oya, murakoze” – I’ll give you a pronunciation lesson when you get here!)

You will see machete scars on peoples’ heads, faces and hands.

Rwandans are extremely clean and will be seen sweeping dirt, scrubbing their floors and windows, washing their shoes every day, etc.

Of course you can take photos (especially of those glorious volcanoes), but don’t take photos of a specific person or group of people unless I ask them first. Often they’re going to say no, or ask that we give them money, which I will not do. Taking a picture in town where people are milling around is ok, but just don’t be too obvious. This rule gets thrown out the window when you’re hanging out with any of my neighborhood kids. They’ll beg you to take photos of them!!

Men hold hands. Men and women usually don’t. PDA’s are rare, except sometime at twilight when inshuti’s (boyfriend/girlfriends) are out for strolls.

Weird things Rwandans do that you may also see me doing because I’ve become one of them: Saying “eeehh” or “mmmm” as a response (it’s sometimes just like saying “oh” or “yes” in a conversation, but they also use it when they are surprised); teeth/lip smacking (don’t know how to explain this in word form, you’ll understand it when you hear it);

If we’re walking around we’re going to pass people carrying two things that can be a little unsettling at first: machetes and machine guns. Many workers carry machetes as they go from job to job or field to field. Trust me, it’s not threatening, but I still find it strange sometimes. And any policeman, prison guard or soldier (and there are many of those all over the country) will be carrying a large gun. Obviously have never seen them use it, but just to be warned.

People will grab your arms/hands to lead you around. Or just grab your arms and hands because they want to.

People will call you fat—don’t be insulted; it’s actually a compliment, usually to say that you are strong or healthy. I actually rarely get the compliment these days, people keep scolding me for losing weight. Alternatively, your house cook will tell you you need to diet...this is not actually meant as a compliment, and is a little awkward coming from the person who prepares all of your meals.

So...there you have's ready to come visit?

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