In the land of green lemons and powerful bosses: things that can surprise you in Rwanda ;)

I once wrote about things I was getting used to in Rwanda, and I think I am indeed already used to them 😉 But this doesn’t mean there aren’t other things which I still find strange or surprising. Nothing big mainly, but still. Like lemons 🙂

Rwanda – a country where lemons are green and limes are yellow 🙂 

Yes, this was one of my first surprises, and I still find it quite amusing. Lemons in Rwanda have a tough and uneven skin which is dark green, and they have lots of pips, but taste just like regular lemons. Recently we discovered that we had a lemon tree in our garden and it’s currently producing its green fruit 🙂 You can get yellow lemons in supermarkets, where the main customers are expats, but they’re imported (from South Africa mostly) and cost several times more than the local ones. Since there is no difference in taste, I see no point in overpaying. Once I showed a photo of “our” lemons to the housekeeper and he stared at it in disbelief as he had no idea such lemons existed 😀 Limes, in turn, are tiny and taste best when their skin turns yellow 🙂 They’re green inside, just like regular limes, and taste exactly the same as well.

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Oh, and local oranges also have green skin! They’re also quite sour and have lots of pips so I prefer to buy the South African ones (not as expensive as the yellow lemons, and available all year round) 😉

Bell pepper is always green

In Rwanda you can only get green bell peppers. Well, other colours are available from those supermarkets for expats but cost a fortune. Literally, 5-6 times more. I know, first world problem, but sometimes it would be nice to have different colours in a salad 😉 And I do know that orange, yellow and red peppers are just ripe green peppers but for some reason (probably something to do with time and money) they’re not allowed to get to this stage in Rwanda 😉

Chicken costs more than beef

Another food quirk: local beef is of excellent quality and even cheaper than in South Africa (where tons of it is produced and eaten, mostly in the form of steaks, burgers and sausages called boerewors). A kilo of fillet steak from a good butcher costs about £5, while a kilo of chicken breast (with skin) is about £7. This is probably because chicken food is relatively expensive as most of it is imported. And cows are ubiquitous as Rwandans have been proudly breeding them for generations, so the meat is more accessible (although this doesn’t mean that people eat beef regularly as cows are kept primarily for milk, plus an average Rwandan simply can’t afford meat on a regular basis).

The boss is always right 

Let’s leave food behind and move on to social stuff. One of the main cultural barriers I encountered in Rwanda is people’s relationship with their superiors. As one of my local colleagues explained to me: in Rwanda people do what their bosses tell them to do, you don’t question orders coming from above. For me, it’s a source of quite a bit of frustration at work (I deal with performance management, among other things). On the one hand, it means that people are in a way passive: my colleagues can’t imagine criticising someone more senior for their decisions or questioning their actions. Well – at least they don’t do that openly, only in private, complaining quietly to people they trust. When they work on something and see it doesn’t make much sense, or something more important crops up and it should actually be treated as a priority at that moment, they won’t go to their superiors to suggest that maybe this first task could be done differently, or maybe it would be better to deal with that new, more important issue right now and leave the other one for later. The boss told them to work on something, so they’re following his or her instructions. And if the boss decides that this new situation should also be dealt with, then even if it’s time-consuming and taking care of it would mean that the first task won’t be completed on time, nobody protests. Assertiveness is not a Rwandan thing. Such behaviour leads to frustration as people often can’t keep up and do everything they’ve been tasked with, but again, no one mentions it. On the other hand though, it doesn’t mean that Rwandans lack initiative. Many good ideas are shared regularly, the problem is that although there is enthusiasm, it’s not followed by actions as people expect their superiors to take the reins and to instruct others what exactly they’re supposed to be doing. And so we keep going around in circles…

The boss of it all 

Recently a colleague, who interviewed young Rwandans applying for scholarships at British universities, shared her observations with me. There is no shortage of bright, ambitious and talented young people in Rwanda. But asked about their role model or a person who inspires them most, they nearly invariably answer – president Paul Kagame. His position in the country is so strong, and the level of worship so high, that this shouldn’t be a surprise. This doesn’t mean that all Rwandans love the president unconditionally, only that those who don’t wouldn’t dare mention it in public.

One of my Rwandan colleagues told me a little story. He once accompanied the British ambassador and some minister from London with his group of advisers on a field trip in Rwanda. It so happened that one day they stayed at a place where some random Brit was holidaying. Upon hearing that such a group travels around the country, he walked up to the ambassador and demanded to know why they were wasting the tax payer’s money on such trips. The ambassador began to explain how diplomacy works, how the public money is spent and what the benefits of such visits are, etc. My colleague couldn’t comprehend two things: one – that some stranger had the courage to criticise his own government so openly to the ambassador; and two – that the ambassador didn’t think it was anything unusual and just patiently replied to the man’s questions. Then my bewildered colleague asked me if this was what democracy was about…

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