We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Rwanda

Rwanda is a very conservative society; most people dress modestly, especially women. Wearing shorts or tight skirts and skimpy tops is likely to get you stared at twice as much as normal. Greetings are extremely important in Rwanda. It is impolite not to return a greeting or to start a conversation without a proper greeting.

Rwanda Culture photo

Photo by US Army Africa

 

Younger persons must greet older persons first, and women greet men first. When being introduced for the first time or when greeting a professional colleague, Rwandans shake right hands and may place the left hand under the right forearm as a sign of respect. Some young urbanites “kiss the air” near each cheek while shaking hands. Usual greetings include Muraho (Hello, it’s been a while), Mwaramutse (Good morning), or Mwiriwe (Good afternoon/evening).

The initial greeting is usually followed by Amakuru? (How’s the news?) or, among close friends, Bite se? (How are things going?). The typical response is Ni meza (Fine) or Ni meza cyane (Very fine). Avoid eye contact with a superior or elder. The distance between people when they converse indicates their relationship: friends require little or no distance, while superiors must have more. Friends of the same sex often hold hands while walking or talking, but such public contact between members of the opposite sex is not appropriate. Pass items to an older person with both hands.

Rwandans toss their head to the side while uttering ‘eh’ to express disbelief, usually when they are listening to a personal experience. Pointing with the finger or hand is impolite; instead, the head is used, with the chin and mouth jutting in the direction indicated. Rwandans will generally never eat or drink in public, apart from restaurants. Rwandan women are rarely seen smoking in public or out in bars unaccompanied. Although there is no smoking ban in most public places like bars and restaurants, generally it’s not encouraged. Sometimes people may complain of being disturbed by your smoking.

Rwandans are very private, reserved people and loud public confrontations or obvious displays of emotion are frowned upon. If you feel you are being overcharged by a trader, quietly persistence is likely to produce results much faster than an angry outburst Understand that Rwanda is recovering from a civil war and genocide in which approximately a million people were murdered. Many lost relatives and friends. Remember to be sensitive to this extreme tragedy when associating with people.

Most people today are trying to forget. It is considered impolite to ask someone about their ethnic origin. There is not much political discourse in Rwanda due to erupting violence, unlike in many neighboring countries such as Uganda and Kenya where people talk freely about the government and political issues, people in Rwanda will be uncomfortable if asked about their views or even if seated at a table where national politics is discussed.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Rwanda, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Rwanda food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Rwanda and No miss drinks in Rwanda.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Rwanda? Please comment below.