Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Greatest Myth

One of the first things that I was told upon arriving in Rwanda in 2006 was that Rwandans just weren’t as friendly as other people in Africa. The metric by which these expatriates (some of whom were African) measured this was whether you were invited to eat at a Rwandan’s home.

My field supervisor noted this. “I just don’t understand it. I’m new in this community. How come no one has invited me to dinner?” she complained.

Expat colleagues in Kigali said the same. “I’ve worked with these colleagues for a full year and they haven’t asked me to come over.”

At a dinner with Embassy employees, more recently, I heard the same. “Rwandans will never invite you over to dinner.”

The problem is that it’s simply not true. I find that there is a double-standard when it comes to inviting people over for a meal; why do we expect Rwandans to do something that we do not? As an example: Imagine you are in a regular, suburban community in the U.S. A single person moves in somewhere on your street. This person is from another country. Pick one that you’re not familiar with. Laos, for example. Even if you see this person on the street several times, what is the likelihood that you will walk up to that person and invite them over for dinner?

Others may be more kindhearted than I, but I’d say most people probably wouldn’t. (On the East Coast, anyway.) This is a cultural thing. As an American, I am very open to meeting people, but I am only going to invite someone over if I have gotten to know them pretty well. This is the same as in Rwanda.

Chalk it up to history, perhaps, but it takes a while for Rwandans to fully trust people they meet. I don’t think this is abnormal, and it is unfair to judge them by this. Inviting someone over for dinner, to a Rwandan, is a very intimate request.

That said, Rwandans do invite people over to share meals. In Gisenyi, I ate at Faycal’s grandmother’s house twice a week. The night before my dinner with the Embassy employees, I was invited by my cleaning woman to go to her house for dinner. She had the entire extended family over, including her mother, and her beautiful son was pottering about, playing with a spoon. She served rice and beans, my favorite meal, and I spoke with the family in Kinyarwanda. Similarly, shortly before my field supervisor had complained about the lack of meal invites, I had been invited by a mutual colleague to his house for lunch.

Why was I invited, while she wasn’t?

The difference is effort. I have discussed the importance of learning local languages with anyone who will listen because it is this effort that shows the people of the country that you are open to learning about them. It is a great sign of respect. Plus, Rwandans are the first to concede that Kinyarwanda is difficult to learn—so even just knowing the greetings opens doors. But more broadly, knowing how to communicate in the local language is really the only way to learn about a culture beyond the obvious. Many people come to Rwanda for a week or less, and undoubtedly learn something. But Rwandan culture is incredibly complex, and to really explore the culture in a meaningful way, language (and time) is simply essential.