Today, I took part in a training session on how to present your best self, mainly in terms of networking. We had a week of learning and development sessions in the office, and I picked this one as I felt I needed it most. But I don’t want to talk about the course itself, rather about what one of my Rwandan colleagues said to me during one of the exercises. It was nice, but quite surprising!
In general, paying compliments simply makes people happy, and it’s a good tool to use when you are trying to connect with someone and make them feel good. The trainer asked the course participants to compliment one another to practise, and one of the ladies said something I wasn’t expecting. She praised my style of dressing. But it wasn’t in the context of being fashionable, it was meant as an appreciation for my respect for the local culture. She said that the clothes I wore showed that I understood what was considered a “proper” outfit in Rwanda, and that were I to meet people from local, rural communities, who are generally much more conservative, wearing what I was that day (a black T-shirt and a long, red skirt), they would notice that as well, and approve.
I must say I was both surprised and touched. When I moved to Rwanda, I did know already that there was a certain, accepted way of dressing, and I was prepared for that. Rwandan women don’t show too much flesh. They never wear shorts, skirts and dresses that would not reach their knees. They don’t wear very low-cut tops that would reveal their cleavages. Sure, many girls and young women wear tight jeans and T-shirts which accentuate their figures, but there are also a lot of women who still prefer traditional outfits made from the local fabric called kitenge: beautifully colourful long dresses with sleeves (usually short), and head wraps with the same pattern. In the countryside, I’ve mostly seen ladies wearing T-shirts and kangas (pieces of kitenge fabric wrapped around their waist, like a sarong, and reaching their ankles). I’ve never really felt the need to expose too much of my flesh to the world anyway, unless I’m on a beach (I really don’t get this style of wearing supershort shorts and tiny tops, on streets in cities, it’s a bit too much for my liking), so it wasn’t difficult for me to adjust to this norm. I usually wear trousers and skirts reaching well below my knees, and tops that are not too revealing, and I never considered it anything special. So it was interesting to see that it does matter, that people do notice it, and that they appreciate it.
The same colleague also told us a story of when she worked in Juba in South Sudan. She has a distinct style: bright colours (usually kitenge), heels, big cheerful earrings, and she loves hats! In South Sudan, she realised at one point that people weren’t particularly welcoming towards her. They didn’t invite her to social gatherings or into their homes, they frowned at her in church. And then it hit her: it’s her dress style that was keeping them away. It’s just not how it’s done there, women dress much more modestly, it’s all much more toned down (although they do wear kitenge there as well), so my colleague looked like a crazy, bright butterfly to the locals, and they didn’t feel they could connect with her. As soon as she swapped the heels for simple sandals and put her huge, pink earrings away, people started to smiled at her and wanted to engage with her more.
I remember my Rwandan colleagues laughing a bit about muzungu (foreigner) men wearing shorts. This is a schoolboy outfit in Rwanda, men wear long trousers, even if it’s very hot. I suppose in the West, there is much more freedom in terms of clothes people wear. Obviously, there are dress codes at events, or in offices, but generally it’s each to their own. In most Arabic countries, in turn, women are expected to fully cover their hair and bodies, and that’s what everyone knows. But in Rwanda, it somehow never occurred to me that by following the general local dress sense, and not really thinking about it much, I was actually sending a powerful message: I respect your culture. In return, I am looked at with respect as well, and with appreciation. Nice thing to discover, isn’t it? 🙂
8 thoughts on “How to dress in Rwanda”
I enjoyed reading your article, it was quite informative. I am retired and live on a modest income. Currently, I am searching for a safe, quiet, affordable locale as my new place of residence. Rwanda appears suitable to me. If you would, please, speak to the actual costs of living in Rwanda; additionally, what of internet access, medical care, the basic needs. I am learning to produce music, and considering reselling on Ebay; what of online commercial interprise in Rwanda?
OOps! Typo: interprise: enterprise.
Hi I’ll actually be moving to Rwanda in September from the states. Would you say bold earrings, such as the ones your colleague wears, are acceptable in rural parts of Rwanda? I just want to get a sense of what I could wear there cause I also like to dress boldly and brightly.
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Hi Brenna, apologies for the late reply! It will be fine, some people might think you a bit eccentric but it certainly won’t offend anyone 🙂 Bright colours are absolutely fine, local women do wear very colourful dresses made from the traditional fabric and it’s gorgeous 🙂 The main thing is to avoid wearing very low-cut tops or very short skirts or shorts as it’s considered immodest. Hope that helps, feel free to let me know if you have any more questions! And enjoy your Rwandan adventure! 🙂
It’s really interesting how different are our cultures!
When I travel somewhere I usually try to learn about all the customs before I go. I want to make sure that I won’t behave inappropriately. And I always check how people dress up there.
Usually local people are more tolerant for tourists, but if I would stay somewhere for long time I think I should adapt to the prevailing “rules” like you did 🙂
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Indeed! Luckily it wasn’t particularly hard to adapt as I didn’t need to adjust my style too much! 🙂
Bardzo ciekawy wpis. To do mnie przemawia – kiedyś, w dawnych czasach wyjechałam do Bułgarii i zrobiłam mały wywiad, ja się tam ubierać, żeby uszanować ichniejsze obyczaje. I czułam się z tym dobrze…
Myślę, że to podstawa: szanować innych – ich sposób bycia, ubierania, bycia. Współczesnym globtroterom bardzo często brak wyczucia w tych sprawach.. Dzięki za ciekawy opis!
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To prawda, niewiele tak naprawdę wysiłku potrzeba, by pokazać, że szanuje się kulturę danego kraju, wystarczy odpowiednio się ubrać! 🙂
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