Customs and Habits
I’m trying to pick up some of the customs here, of which there are many. In particular, Rwandans have perfected the art of the greeting. After the initial hellos (which depend on the time of day), they exchange three kisses, starting on the left. If men are greeting, they hold each other’s shoulders and touch foreheads, also starting on the left. Everyone exchanges low hand slaps.
Rwandans stop to greet every person they know (or, as far as I can tell, every person they have met at least once). This can make getting from Point A to Point B a long process—especially when you’re walking with a longtime resident. (In some ways, it’s a good thing that time is a fluid concept here, which I will discuss.) I chose to selectively follow this custom, really only acknowledging friends or people with whom I had had conversations. Yesterday, however, I was scolded by a shopkeeper from whom I had twice purchased toilet paper for not saying hello every time I passed her shop (to be honest, I wasn’t aware that she even knew when I walked by). As recompense, she wanted me to marry her son, who was drinking a beer at 8 o’clock in the morning.
If that’s my punishment, I’m definitely going to be saying hello to everyone from now on.
Another phenomenon is same-sex hand-holding. Surprisingly, it’s mostly done by boys—they walk down the street together, hands clasped. Many opt to wrap arms around each others’ waists. It’s a sign of great friendship, not homosexuality, but I can’t help the fact that I’m struck, at least for a moment, every time I see it. I’ve had countless conversations about homosexuals with my Rwandan friends, and all of them, bar one, was dismayed by the concept. (This has made for some very colorful discussions, and my friends all think I’m a wayward soul for both 1) having gay friends, and 2) not caring that they were gay.) Rwandan society is very traditional and very religious, and hasn’t yet come to accept homosexuality. My co-worker said, “Gays? We don’t have any here,” at which point I informed him that, once upon a time, the U.S. “didn’t have any gays” either. Now it’s said that they’re 10 percent of the U.S. population. He was incredulous. At any rate, any closeted people would feel comfortable walking down the street, holding hands with their partners, because no one would be able to tell the difference.
Another custom that I just learned about (again) involves alcohol. The label of the Primus beer reads: “Gahuza Miryango,” which means, roughly, “Brings Families Together.” I thought this was pretty strange for a beer. Apparently, tradition dictates that when a boy wants to ask the girl’s family for permission to marry her, he is supposed to bring beer to drink while the family discusses the proposition. In this way, it “brings families together.” (They also used to make blood pacts, which have ended because of the threat of HIV/AIDS.) Similarly, there is another expression, “Tarama” (banana liqueur) which is used as an invitation to meet during the evening to have a discussion (the implication being that the conversation will take place over a glass of banana liqueur).
Dogs and cats are pretty rare here, and generally, people don’t keep dogs as pets. They are generally kept as guardians, and rarely as companions. One friend explained that Rwandans tend to avoid emotional attachment of any kind to animals. Another, who happens to be very religious, said with conviction that they can often be shape-shifting witch doctors. “Once, a boy threw rocks at a cat, and the cat turned into an old woman. She asked him why he threw rocks at her.” I asked her how she knew this story was true. “Oh, there were many witnesses,” she said. I’ve heard some crazy things about voodoo, which is less present here than it is in neighboring countries such as the DRC. I don’t really believe it, but I’m not planning on throwing rocks at any animals anytime soon.
Finally (this is less a custom than a habit), Rwandans have a very lax sense of time. 9:00 can be 10 or 11. When I was in the U.S., my friends made fun of me, saying that in terms of being fashionably late, I was indeed very fashionable. Rwandans, however, redefine tardiness. I’m on time compared to them, and if you know me, you can only imagine what this must mean. Sometimes I feel like this is God’s way of punishing me. It’s only too appropriate.
Expatriates here joke that, when you’re at a restaurant and, after a long wait, the waiter brings out plates and condiments, you only have 45 minutes left before the food arrives. (My experience has shown this to be frustratingly true.) Often, waiters won’t tell you until 30 minutes after you place your order that they have run out of whatever you ordered.
One weekend, I was supposed to meet my friend Fred at 8 pm. At 10:30, he finally arrived, chipper and oblivious—I, however, was exhausted and wanted to go to sleep. He didn’t realize that being 2 ½ hours late was a problem. Of course, all my friends have cell phones, but they don’t think to call you to tell you that they’re not on schedule. And if you call them, they’ll always tell you they’re almost there.
I’m trying to be more flexible, with little success. It’s so aggravating. I’ve decided that I’m going to make a more concerted effort to be on time when I get home. (Don’t hold me to that.)