Monday, September 13, 2010

Rwandan etiquette

There are lots of things Rwandans do and say that seem rude when considered in an American cultural context:

- To get someone’s attention, say that of a waiter, a passerby in the street, or a potential customer in the market, many Rwandans make a hissing noise. It’s alarmingly effective.
- There is no word for “please” in Kinyarwanda. The word for “thank you,” murakoze, translates literally as “you have just done (done well).”
- There is no word for “excuse me” either. When people want to get by, they push you out of the way, usually gently.
- Picking noses and shooting snot rockets onto the ground are common occurrences.
- So is picking one’s earwax in public. Two recent experiences: the woman on my bus last month who bought a lollypop, picked her ear with the end of the stick, and then unwrapped it and ate it, and the guy who walked into the milk bar where I was eating a sambusa and wished me “Muryoherwe” (bon appetite) as he twisted a cotton swab in his ear - and then reached over to shake my hand.
- Upon meeting someone new, a Rwandan immediately asks “Are you married?” and “How many children do you have?”
- It’s also common to ask a near-stranger if they are looking for a husband. It’s not just men who ask me this, but women as well.
- Discussing weight is in no way taboo – I’ve been in multiple conversations where Rwandans have talked about each other’s weight, particularly in the context of “so-and-so used to be skinny before you were married.”
- One colleague once told me “your face is very nice without glasses but I don’t like it when you wear your glasses.”
- Another asked me what medicines I take at home.
- Asking how much money somebody makes isn’t taboo either.
- As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s quite common to answer one’s phone during a meeting, church, or anywhere else, and proceed to talk on it in hushed tones without excusing oneself.
- Rwandans have no issues with describing people by their skin color (be it Muzungu vs. Rwandan or a distinction between “brown” and “black” Rwandans).
- Rwandans throw food on the floor of their homes and others’ homes. Using a toothpick? Just spit out the food you’ve dislodged! Throw the toothpick on the floor too. This makes more sense when you realize how often they (or their houseboys) clean the floors, but it sure is off-putting to observe.
- Waiting on a Rwandan? Call to ask when they will arrive, and they’ll tell you a few minutes. Always, regardless of whether they’re actually going to be an hour or two late. It would be rude for them to say anything but Ndaje, ndaje “I’m coming, I’m coming,” even if they haven’t left yet.

This all takes some getting used to, but it’s normal here to be nosy about somebody’s marital status, and comments about physical appearance and skin color don’t carry the same weight as they would in the US.

On the other hand, there’s a number of ways in which Rwandans might find our culture quite rude. They greet everyone, while we hardly ever talk to strangers we pass in the street. Greetings often extend to discussing marital status, what one does, etc., so it’s a nice way to get to know the people I pass every day and the shopkeepers I’ve arbitrarily chosen to frequent. Rwandans also love giving gifts and will usually share food with guests. They also accompany guests to the front gate and sometimes halfway down the street - an American who stopped at the door when seeing guests out would be viewed as rude. There is a very nice tradition of randomly giving small gifts - buying a coworker or neighbor ears of corn or a bunch of bananas, for example.

Although sometimes I am frustrated by what might be considered rude behavior, it helps to take a step back and remember the cultural context. Except when I’m told I’m getting fat - it may be a Rwandan compliment, but that’s just not fun to hear.


  1. in defense of Rwanda among the central/east african consort of nations, most if not all of the things you've mentioned here were pretty much true of the citizens of the Central African Republic in the early-mid 80s. I still hold them in high regard, as I'm sure you do (and will) the Rwandans. great stuff Trudy, keep up the good writing

  2. I learned from some Albanians in Worcester this weekend that Albanians also accompany people to the gate and keep an eye on them. It is because it is a horrible dishonor for someone to die with your food in their belly. If they die on your property, than you are required to avenge the death in a blood feud.


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