First barrier – language

It’s been nearly 4 weeks since we arrived in Rwanda. Last weekend we drove up to the house in which we will eventually be living. At the moment it’s being renovated so we just wanted to check on the progress. As everything seemed to be going according to plan, we decided to go for a short walk in the area.

We already knew that if we kept going down our road, we would get to a few local shops and stalls selling fruit and veg. That’s quite important as shopping in Kigali is a bit of a mission (I’ll write more about it another time). On the way we met few people but one kid walked past and said “give me money” in English, which suprised us a bit (I certainly hadn’t encountered that before, and once, as I was walking along the main road, two schoolboys coming towards me smiled, said “hello” and gave me a high-five). It was quite incredible to see that barely 200 m from our house and neighbouring villas (much bigger and nicer than ours) were typical local homes: little concrete houses with corrugated iron roofs, all very close to one another. They may not look as poor as some of the townships I’ve seen in South Africa but are still very modest. I am pretty sure most people (if not all) have no running water. But they all looked very clean and tidy, women dressed in traditional colourful dresses, and men just like Westerners, in jeans, checked shirts, carrying smartphones. There were also big jute bags in a few places along the road, containing segregated waste. As usual in Kigali, there was no rubbish on the street or on the side of the road.

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The road to our house
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Our house is below this hedge, you can see a bit of its green roof 🙂
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The view from our street

When we got to the little shops, we wanted to see what they were actually selling so we walked into one. It was more like a little hut with no doors, and on the concrete floor and some shelves there were bananas, lemons, pinapples, potatoes, manioc and eggs. There were also a few people inside. We greeted them in English and French, and T. joked that umuzungu (a white person) has come in to have a look. They all laughed so we assumed they understood us. T. then asked, in both English and French, whether we could get a lettuce, and I explained that we were new in the neighbourhood. The mood instantly changed – everyone shook their heads and stopped smiling. Eventually one boy said “Kinyarwanda” and that was that – they all went back to their conversation and weren’t bothered with us anymore. We got the message: they didn’t speak English or French, we didn’t speak Kinyarwanda, so there was no point trying to communicate. We said thank you and goodbye (which they barely acknowledged), and left. On the way back we met another kid demanding money and I had the impression that this was the only phrase he had learnt in English…

This was an interesting experience for me. I am of course going to learn some useful phrases in Kinyarwanda, I even have a coursebook. I know how important it is to be able to say at least a few words in the local language. Usually it’s met with enthusiasm and a smile, or at least this has been my experience in other African countries so far. Even when I was only able to say hello, the fact that I tried seemed to please the interlocutor who would usually switch to English or French anyway. There have also been times when neither I nor the person I was trying to speak to knew any common language, but we still managed to communicate using gestures. In Rwanda, both French and English are official languages (besides Kinyarwanda of course), although since 2008 English is taught in schools instead of French (the relationship between Rwanda and France is rather strained). Many people also speak Swahili. So far I have been using French in shops where employees didn’t get the chance to learn English at school, and I have never experienced a reaction like the one in that little shop. Maybe it’s because the shops I’ve been going to, which are more modern, like little supermarkets, are frequented by more foreigners and the sellers are simply used to interacting with them. But I have decided that soon I will return to those local stalls near my house, armed with some phrases and vocabulary required to buy fruit and veg. Maybe I will be received a bit more favourably, although I know that as umuzungu I’ll pay more than a Rwandan – doesn’t matter, I just hope they will sell me anything at all! 😉

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