it’s kind of a funny place

I may or may not have shown up at the office today at 10:00 am – two hours late.

I then proceeded to meet with our marketing manager for approximately 15 minutes to discuss a marketing plan we are collaborating on. Then, well, we may have talked about visas, marriage, in-laws, and inter-cultural relationships for like…I don’t know….an hour? He’s getting married to an American and so I was curious about their wedding, obviously.

I blame the World Cup for my tardiness.

I stayed up until an ungodly time last night (oh yeah, like 3:00 am) to cheer on the Red, White, and Blue against the Black Stars. No regrets. Team USA was finally able to overcome the “Ghana thing” where we have been unable to close the matches with Ghana in both 2010 and 2006 World Cups. It’s about dang time.

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It’s not like I haven’t been working hard. Quite the opposite; most days I work 8-9 hours plus a 1 or 2 hour lunch. That doesn’t include times when I decide to commute to work by foot and I take 90 minutes to do so. Yet, even at a bank, it’s kind of nice to just chat sometimes, you know? Every job, internship, or volunteer experience usually allots for those kinds of moments. They are certainly important to take advantage of.

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It’s important because it’s how you learn about people, about a culture, and about a country. Something that I’m learning over (and over) again with Rwanda is that no matter how many days, weeks, or years I spend here, I will never fully comprehend this country. But hey, that’s okay. Societies and cultures and people aren’t exactly easy topics to grasp. It’s perhaps easy to think that with more and more experience living in a country, understanding becomes an attainable reality. Call me crazy, but I think the opposite. Rwanda, like probably many places around the world, is a place where just when you think you have it figured it out, BAM! Confusion, inconsistencies, or weird stuff happens and you find yourself “back at square one”. I once heard of an American man who has lived in Kigali for over thirty years and claims adamantly that this place gets more confusing with each passing year. Amen, brother, amen.

This dichotomy of cultural understanding and confusion was on my mind today as I was shooting off emails, reading through meeting notes, and sipping my ever-present water bottle in the office. Then, in pursuit of fresh air, a new location, and in an additional small act of rebellion (I mean, I already had shown up at 10:00am anyway), I headed to Rwanda’s National Library. I had some marketing materials I needed to review, but decided upon completion that I could enjoy some library time, scope out some books, and read further on some differences I have specifically seen in Rwanda.

It was my first library visit and I was impressed by the scale, size, and structure of the building. It’s quite beautiful. Officially having opened in 2012, it’s a very new idea and institution in the city. I left with a pretty optimistic impression, however. I walked past at least 30 people searching for different kinds of research material. I saw people using computers. I sat along with people applying for membership cards. Cultural events and city happenings were posted on a small but centralized community board. This is awesome. My library experience was a bit different when I started the library project out in the village back in 2012. I went back for a visit last week and there is definitely some programmatic and community-centered initiatives that need to occur to keep the project sustainable. However, it’s still being used regularly (with a new set of Kinyarwanda books on their way) and so I still like to think of that as a very positive move forward. I thought about that 7 x 7 library room back at school as I stood in the large, open foyer at this library in Kigali. Who would have thought?

library

I perused the bookshelves for anything I could find about Rwandan culture (after finishing my work assignments, of course) and to be honest, I didn’t find much. Sure, books about George W. Bush were a plenty. I even saw about 10 copies of The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, a textbook staple at Hendrix for the Intro to Religion course. But, it was hard to figure out where all the Rwanda-based material was. To be fair, I didn’t explore much on the top-level and so it’s very possible I missed the appropriate section entirely. Instead of roaming around aimlessly like a lost child for 30 minutes, I instead settled on a small writing space and started brainstorming and recalling some of the “interesting” things I have encountered and experienced in Rwandan culture. I think they will capture a bit more about this culture, the place I am living, and the context for everything currently around me. Along the way to my little brown table, I picked up a highly relevant magazine, The Diva, because why not. I was pretty excited about this find. See below.

WIN_20140617_151513

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Cultural insights: What Makes Rwanda Interesting (and sometimes, quite frankly, weirdly wonderful):

  • When serving Fanta (or beer or any kind of drink) the person providing the drink will often take the first sip. This shows the person you are sharing with that the drink is not poisoned. This also applies to meals shared together – especially in the rural areas. Often, you might share bananas, potatoes, or whatever it might be on one large plate. My friends have often told me that you must be careful and watch where other people are eating – you want to be sure that they aren’t afraid to eat the food – if they don’t prove to you that “it’s okay” to eat it could, in fact, be poisoned.
  • Speaking of food, in most circumstances, DO NOT EAT OUTSIDE. Buses seem to be a safe zone, but it’s generally considered rude to eat in front of other people if you aren’t indoors. Restaurants around the city are becoming more open (especially in the last couple of years) but in many cases in more isolated areas especially, if you go to buy a doughnut and want to eat it, you will it inside and there will be a curtain hanging in the doorway so that people on the outside cannot see. I am told this is an act of courtesy for those who don’t have food and are hungry.
  • My colleague once remarked to me, “do you like Fanta Orange?” I told him I didn’t and he proceeded to comment that if you like to drink that kind of Fanta it means you are a virgin. Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly how it goes.
  • As if I haven’t mentioned Fanta enough: at weddings it is a traditional part of the ceremony to exchange Fanta between two male leaders on each side of the family. The groom’s family typically present a 2L bottle, opens it, and they pour glasses and drink together. This is one of many wedding traditions that represents the unity of families.
  • Conversations have a certain rhythm to them. If, for example, you have a question and need to find some information, you don’t ask the question right away. You first have to appropriately greet the person, ask how they are, follow up on their “news”, share what’s happening in your life, and then explain what the purpose of your conversation is. That’s also how meetings work too – “getting to the point” isn’t really a thing.
  • Which reminds me. Meetings, social gatherings, church, weddings, and ceremonies of any kind occur in great respect to hierarchy. Case and point: when I would visit homes of Rwandan students’, I would always sit in the nicest chair. I would get the biggest portion of meat. I would also serve myself before anyone else would begin. The “hierarchy” of a situation may be already decided and you simply have to adjust. If there isn’t enough chairs for everyone in the room, it’s quite typical for children and also women to sit on a nearby mat and allow men to take a seat in the chairs provided. The same kind of thing has been happening to me in Kigali as well.
  • Additionally, authority – in the time that I have lived here – is rarely questioned. That goes for a multitude of environments, on all kinds of levels. If you have “made it” and have a position of power, this is enough and people tend to respect that authority and do as the leader says.
  • I still believe one of the gravest Rwandan sins is dirty shoes. That’s all I have to say about that.
  • Being “serious” is about the most important thing you can be: this means you are responsible, honest, hard-working, and reliable. If someone says otherwise, you must have really upset them.
  • For some reason, it’s completely unacceptable to not “be smart” – that is, dressed nicely, clean, and put together. Yet, it’s totally fine to pick your nose in public. Seriously. Riddle me that one.
  • So embarrassingly, when I was home this winter, my mom noticed a couple of chin hairs on my face. I know. I know. But apparently, in Rwandan culture, this could be a result of eating goat meat. Eat some brochettes you can then expect to grow a beard?
  • Gender relationships are a quagmire in this country. In 2008 it was the only country in the WORLD with more women in parliament then men. Yet, technically, women aren’t supposed to do a lot of things: milk a cow, whistle, or climb trees. Now that I am living in Kigali I see A LOT more women-men contact (like hand-holding) but it’s still not overly common. That being said, physical affection between members of the same-sex is totally, totally okay. Encouraged even! Men who are greeting close friends of theirs will shake their hands, hug, and place their foreheads against each other. It’s kind of adorable.
  • Satan is a real, powerful force. See a snake? Satan may be lurking. My students always swore by this.
  • You can never have enough sugar in your tea or salt in your peanut sauce.
  • Gossip, rumors, secrets: PEOPLE WILL KNOW ALL OF YOUR BUSINESS. Even in the city, everyone seems to know everyone. And believe me, they know what you have been up to.

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I just looked up. The sun will be setting in a couple of hours and I should probably start heading home. The library is adjacent to the American Embassy which puts me about 4 miles from home. Good thing these shoes are made for walking.

As you can see, just from a little insight into Rwanda, it’s kind of a funny place. Yet, I do love it here. I love how I am always discovering something new, finding new places, and that the sun is almost always shining. Don’t be mistaken; though I have now lived here in some capacity for a total of 2 and ½ years I still have so much to learn. Though I will never quite “figure it out” it’s kind of fun to try and fail and to try and fail again. That’s what makes living abroad so fun.

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2 comments

  1. Lucia · June 19, 2014

    Sounds like an incredible opportunity! I love learning about things that make absolutely no sense to me, but are common sense to other people. It must be such an incredible learning experience to be there!

    Like

    • heathermnewell · August 21, 2014

      Thanks Lucia! Living abroad is a learning experience unlike anything else – that’s for sure. Thank you for your kind comment! Komera (be strong)!

      Like

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