5 things I’m getting used to in Rwanda

I’m slowly settling down in Kigali. The main works in the house are finished (although our toilet is blocked again), our cat is no longer afraid of the chickens (but he still isn’t sure about the rabbit – yes, we have two chickens that lay beautiful eggs, and a cute free-roaming rabbit that is more like a goat as he eats nearly everything), the weather is lovely and I’ve just started working (very part-time but still). However, there are things I’m still getting used to and although they’re not giving me sleepless nights, I still find them a bit odd or slightly awkward. Here goes, in no particular order.

1. The housekeeper

Along with the house came Janviere, the housekeeper. Or rather, her husband Alphonse for the time being as she’s just had a baby and is still nursing. I obviously have no problem as such with the idea – in South Africa we had a lady coming once a week to do some cleaning as well (that’s just how it worked out there, we didn’t really have a choice), and it’s just very nice to come home from work to a clean house. Plus the cost is relatively low for us but the salary makes a big difference to the cleaner. But here it’s EVERY DAY, Monday to Friday. Now, the house is big, fair enough, but there’s only two of us and we don’t really make that much mess (and we only use two rooms really, plus kitchen and bathroom). The deal is the deal though – it’s a full time job, from 8am to 3pm. After the first week living in the house it’s clear to me that there isn’t enough work to fill those hours every single day so I’ve asked Alphonse to start an hour later and go home whenever he’s done (which is usually after about 3 hours). And of course, we’re still going to pay him the previously agreed amount (he gave me a big happy smile – less work for the same money, yay!) What is odd for me is just having someone, a stranger really, in the house every day. I can’t really make close friends with him as he’s my employee so that feels a bit awkward. Oh, and there is also a gardener who comes every morning, and, bizzarely, apart from pruning and watering he also cleans the patio on Fridays… Anyway, you’re probably thinking “first world problem, get on with it!” but I’m simply used to doing most of the cleaning (and gardening) myself, and it feels a bit like having a servant… But I have a plan: I’m going to use my housekeeper in other ways too – he (and his wife) can teach me some Kinyarwanda in exchange for practicing English with me. They’re both French speakers and although they do speak English reasonably well already, they’re keen to improve as it has become a more important language here than French (it replaced French in schools as well). That way we can connect on a different level as well 🙂

2. Shopping

I mentioned in my previous post that shopping in Kigali is a bit of a mission. Well, it requires both planning and no fixed shopping list. The plan is needed as shops (supermarkets) differ quite dramatically in terms of stock so you may spend a couple of hours driving around. But since that stock is rather unpredictable anyway, a shopping list isn’t really of much use as you might not find the stuff you need. So it’s all a bit hit and miss, and an adventure that can be a bit frustrating. No point planning an elaborate meal for the next day as key ingredients might be unavailable that week (or month – I’m told there was a period not long ago that you just couldn’t get natural yoghurt and low-fat milk for weeks. I still haven’t encountered natural yoghurt). People rely on intelligence (cheese delivery this Friday, off we go before all the feta is gone! And while it’s there, buy 2 kilos, just in case, even though it costs an arm and a leg! 😉 ) and just improvise. The good thing is that fresh fruit and veg is always there, and it’s cheap and of good quality. There is also a very good online service called Get it. They have a Facebook page and usually respond to messages within minutes. They have a good selection of fruit, veg and herbs, including those hard to get on the market, a few other things (I was quite impressed with wheat germ!), and deliver the next day to your door. But things like toiletries – oh dear. I’m looking forward to my trip to Poland in September so I can stock up on: shampoo and conditioner, shower gel, body lotion (all horrendously expensive, and very limited choice of recognisable brands), suncream (not available anywhere) and mosquito spray (very rarely seen). The annoying thing is not just the price but how it differs from shop to shop. I bought a 500ml Nivea body lotion for Rwf4,500 (£4,50) and then saw it in another shop for Rwf 12,500!!! No idea how that works. If you like wine (I do, especially after 4 years in South Africa!), then you need to brace yourself – the choice is very limited and prices blown up again. There’s always local beer, which is nice, but I’m not a massive beer drinker. Hey, I suppose that’s good for my liver and diet! 😉

3. Connecting with Rwandans

Rwandans are rather serious people, at least compared with other Africans. This doesn’t mean they are unfriendly, not at all. They’re just reserved and quiet. Indeed, I’ve not heard people talking loudly or shouting as this is frowned upon. However, as usual, barriers can be broken quite easily. Yesterday as I was walking down the street, I made the point of greeting and smiling at every single person I encountered. Nearly all of them not only greeted me back but their serious faces also suddenly broke into big smiles. While this is easy, things get a bit more complicated when you meet with them socially and are trying to get to know them a bit better. You need to remember NEVER to ask about their ethnicity. This would be a massive faux pas and would cause offence. One of the ways the government has dealt with the aftermath of the Genocide against the Tutsi is by fostering the idea of Rwandanness. So there are not more Hutu, Tutsi and Batwa (the Pygmies). Everyone is Rwandan. This, however, also means that it might be awkward to ask people which part of Rwanda they come from as the answer could indicate which tribe they represent. I have asked questions like: “Do you have family here in Kigali?” and the answer was: “Yes, my mother lives here but my wife’s family are in the Western Province”. So I would then ask if she visits them often or if those family members come to Kigali, and they would say yes, at least once a month, etc. And that would be perfectly fine. You just need to watch people’s reactions and if you see they’re not keen to talk about any details, don’t press them. I think I’m quite good at small talk and it pays off here. You know, things like – oh, what a lovely day, it’s nice to wake up to sunshine and singing birds, what type of tree/bird is this? The Rwandans I’ve met are proud of their country and they appreciate when foreigners have something nice to say about it and are keen to explore. They do want you to feel comfortable and welcome. We have already been invited to one of our colleague’s child’s christening next month. But other expats have warned us – be prepared for a long day! Rwandans like to celebrate but they do it their own way. There isn’t dancing and drinking – there are speeches, lots of them, and usually there is no alcohol (that goes for weddings as well). I’m looking forward to experiencing a family occasion like this!

4. Warm beer, warm Coke

When you go out to a bar or restaurant, don’t be surprised if the waiter asks you if you want your beer or Coke cold. Rwandans usually drink them at room temperature. So when you’re inviting people over, make sure you have a stock of beer and soda (i.e. Coke, Fanta, Sprite) outside of your fridge. The reason for this is simple – the vast majority of people do not have electricity at home. And if they do, they don’t have fridges as that’s a bit of a luxury they can’t afford. They just got used to drinking their beers warm and it’s us, Westerners, who are a bit weird!

5. Pets

Rwandans don’t really do pets. This is mostly a rural society and animals are there to serve humans – chickens lay eggs and then become food for the family, goats and cows give milk and meat as well. But what is really noticeable is no cats or dogs around. A friend had a stray cat in the garden and she gave birth to several kittens so they’re all running around the garden, half feral, and nobody really minds them, but with dogs the story is quite different. Only expats seem to have them, Rwandans are usually distrustful or scared of them. There is a reason for this. Dogs used to be popular in Rwanda until the Genocide. When people were running away from the violence, they weren’t able to take their dogs with them. And as you know, the death toll was extremely high in a very short space of time, so soon there were many ghost villages with just half-starved dogs left to fend for themselves. Sadly, there was little for them to eat and they started feeding on human corpses… So after the Genocide virtually all dogs in Rwanda were shot as they became a symbol of violence and impurity (remember the film Shooting dogs? The title refers to UN soldiers shooting the scavenging dogs). People still remember this but the attitudes are gradually changing. Many Rwandans were born after 1994, have lived and travelled abroad, have had contact with expats, and thus have been more exposed to the Western culture of owning dogs as pets. It’s quite straighforward to bring a pet into Rwanda and if you want to adopt a puppy, there are a couple of shelters (run by expats) where you can get yourself a furry friend.

I’m sure there will be more things I’ll be surprised at in the coming months, and soon I’ll probably get used to stuff I initially found strange and won’t think about it twice. It’s exciting, this opportunity to live in a very different culture! Now I just need to get on with my Kinyarwanda and start planning some trips 😀

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4 thoughts on “5 things I’m getting used to in Rwanda

  1. Pingback: In the land of green lemons and powerful bosses: things that can surprise you in Rwanda ;) – Marianna in Africa

  2. Pingback: Bye bye 2016, hello 2017! – Marianna in Africa

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