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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right, I can just confirm your opinion.
PS: I am rwandan and live in Europe!! Phil

1/05/2009 4:50 PM  
Blogger Crypt Stitch said...

Nice to hear from you again Morgan! I so enjoyed reading your blog. And as for the invite thing, you are dead on the money there!

1/06/2009 2:04 AM  
Blogger Cassandra said...

Nice to see a blog from you again.

Wellsaid. I've been living here for six months and have heard the "Rwandans aren't very friendly" line more than I can count... And yet, my Rwandan friends invite me home often. Rwandans can be reserved at times, but once mutual trust is established, I don't think I've ever felt so welcome. I think you're 100% right that language is the key to unlocking some of the complex cultural dimensions here. While some Rwandans get a chuckle out of me speaking in Kinyarwanda, the vast majority are just pleased that I'm making the effort to communicate in their first language rather than mine.

1/06/2009 2:43 AM  
Blogger Wendy said...

Great post Morgan! Hope all is well. I am looking forward to exploring this more when I go back to Kigali February through October. :)

1/07/2009 10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

glad to see your posting in such a long while. My hubby is now in rwanda and has been there for nearly three months. I will be joining him in a few days time. will tell you more once i have hands on experience in kigali. I do have some rwandan friends in singapore though - and i think they are delightful people. Hospitality has to be given as well as received - and we have made great friends of them here... and i am sure their family will embrace me when i get to rwanda too@

1/10/2009 7:57 PM  
Blogger Flounder said...

Wow, nice to hear from you again!

1/12/2009 1:55 PM  
Blogger Ahmed said...

Hi Morgan, are you still in Rwanda? I'm leaving to Rwanda the ned of the month part of the first Peace Corps mission to Rwanda. Been reading your posts and they're just amazing.

Thanks for sharing

1/14/2009 1:59 PM  
Blogger Nicky Reiss said...

I loved living in Rwanda, and have not only been invited for dinner but have also stayed in the homes of two different sets of Rwandan friends in Kigali. I was also honored at the way in which Rwandan friends have shared their personal stories with me - several times.
I hope I'll be able to return one day!

1/15/2009 3:06 PM  
Blogger missionarymum said...

Hi I really enjoyed reading your blog. i am married to a rwandese man and i found your blog by looking-learning kinarwanda. as i want to learn it. i found what you said in your blog quite interesing and a very good perpective. i look forward to seeing more of your blogs. natalie

1/16/2009 3:30 PM  
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2/11/2009 10:14 AM  
Blogger Lin said...

Thank you so much for your blog and the dictionary.

FriendsofButare.org will be making their third trip to Butare, Rwanda In July 2009 to continue our work to refurbish a school destroyed in the genocide, and we refer all new participants to your website, and we will have a link from our page to your dictionary if that's OK with you.

2/12/2009 5:09 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

Hi Morgan, we were there for 2 weeks In December/January and we were invited to dinner! We did show an interest in trying authentic homecooked Rwandan food though. Out of all the nice hotels and restaurants we ate at, the meal we ate at someone's home was by far the best! Our kids even loved it! We thought that the Rwandan people were wonderful. It seems that everyone in Rwanda has a story. I hope to return someday soon. Glad you are able to go in April.

3/29/2009 8:14 PM  
Blogger bathmate said...

I liked it.

12/21/2009 1:07 PM  

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