Points of Culture
So here are some differences between American culture and Rwandan culture, as I’ve seen it in the last six months. Some of them may seem more commonplace than others.
First, the issue of bags. We are taking classes, trying to learn Kinyarwanda, the beautiful yet very difficult-to-learn local language. (10 noun classes! ugh!) On Monday, our teacher taught us the word for “bag,” as in bookbag, backpack, or briefcase. He said “you know this one, this word for bag. You must know it. Every mzungu [white person] has his own bag.” I had never thought about it before, but it’s really true for Americans, and absolutely not true for Rwandans. Unless it is full of potatoes or charcoal for cooking, you pretty much never see a Rwandan carrying a bag for personal effect. That is, unless it’s a woman carrying a purse, in which case it wouldn’t be uncommon for her to carry it on her head, while still holding on to the handles which are at about ear-level.
Second, eating in public. Americans do not think twice about snacking while driving or in taxis or while just walking down the street. Apples, candy bars, sandwiches, cheese-and-crackers, whatever… we just eat, whenever we want, wherever we want. It’s something you don’t think about until you are eating a muffin on the way to school or drinking tea from a travel mug and the moto driver next you says “bon appetit!” sarcastically. Or it’s the same situation, but you’re stuck in traffic and the pedestrians walking by your car give the same advice. It seems that Rwandans view themselves as civilized (as they rightfully are), and they believe that civilized people just should not eat in public.
Third, footwear. Since in the rural areas of Africa footwear is hard to come by, and if you have shoes it’s probably just a flip-flop or sandal of some kind, for a mzungu it is completely unacceptable to wear those “thongs” or flip-flops. I mean, I do it, but it completely confuses the Rwandans who believe that to wear thick/shiny/lace-up shoes is a sign of wealth and status. Only the people who sweep dirt against the side of the road, or lowly farmers wear those things. And the dress shoes that “successful” Rwandans do wear, are mostly European designs, so the toes of the shoes are about four inches longer than the person’s actual toes, and are usually pointy. Sometimes bankers and government officials look more like elves.
Finally, driving. I have heard that driving is considered a distinct privilege for a Rwandan, a privilege that once you experience, you are basically free of performing any kind of courtesy to other drivers. Best example – the high beams. I do not expect a Rwandan driver to ever switch to low beams if he or she is behind me, or coming toward me on the road. It must be a position of great pleasure to drive, and to drive however you choose. Speed limits are a problem, as well as tailgating, but none so pervasive as the blinding headlights in your rearview mirror.
Ok, that’s enough. I hope I don’t sound like a bitter, culture-stressed American. I just think these things are interesting to note. The end!