- Here's some more observations on the culture of Rwanda; keep in mind that these are based on my experience of being here for a little over 6 months, and many of them pertain specifically to being in a small village in Rwanda.
People's last names do not get passed down through generations, like in America. Each person has two names that are only theirs. For example, each kid has a name completely different from both of his or her parents. This is kind of cool, but it probably makes tracking your ancestry in Rwanda a bit of a nightmare. And Rwandans write what an American would call their "last name" first and capitalized, e.g. DUSENGIMANA Jean. Usually the capitalized names have a religious meaning (things like "We worship God" or "Lover of God"). People often ask me the meaning of my last name, and I feel kind of weird just saying it doesn't mean anything.
- Poisonings are a very real thing. When I was in Peace Corps training this past summer, our training manual said something like, “Sometimes when a Rwandan villager goes to the health center, the person’s friends or neighbors will bring him food, but it will be poisoned.” I remember reading it and thinking, “What is this, an Agatha Christie novel?” and writing it off as some old myth, or just coincidental food poisoning. But after being in my village for four months now, I’ve learned that poisonings really do happen (often because of jealousy or deals gone wrong). The nuns told me a few weeks ago that the main poison supplier finally got put in prison because some of the poison he sold was used to kill some important person in the district, but that everyone knew who this poison kingpin was. I better not make any enemies in Rwanda…
- “Fast food” in Rwanda (even in Kigali) means getting your food within an hour of ordering it (there are a few notable exceptions, but this remains true for the vast majority). I had a pretty funny experience with a bunch of my fellow volunteers during a Peace Corps Conference in Kigali a few months ago. We had a two-hour lunch break, and we found a spot that advertised “fast food.” The ten or so volunteers sat down and ordered things like pizza, salads, and sandwiches. After an hour and a half, no food. A waiter came out and told people that they were out of half of the ingredients, would we mind re-ordering? After two hours, only couple people had gotten their food, and several of us left with empty stomachs and we were all late returning to the conference. It’s generally best to order while you’re still full from your last meal, because by the time your food comes you will be hungry again.
- People often wave with two hands here, and I’ve gotten used to it too. Look for that weirdo in a couple years in America greeting you with the double wave like it’s no big deal.
- A very real insult in Rwanda is to tell someone they have “umuco mubi”, or “bad culture.” I will also probably use this in America at some point and no one will have any idea what I’m talking about. “You have bad culture” is the next four-letter word, America.
- Rwandans have an obsession with keeping their shoes clean. Even when it’s the rainy season (meaning, it rains every. single. day. for a few hours) and my village is one big mud puddle, you’re expected to always have clean shoes. When people are giving you the “once-over”, the first thing they usually look at is how clean your shoes are. Dry season, I miss you….
- Some Rwandans believe in some kind of fictitious American cult (that I had never ever heard about before) called the Illuminati. Even educated people here swear on their lives that this mysterious group (members apparently include Beyonce, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Lady Gaga….) sold their souls to the devil in order to gain wealth and fame, and that they basically control the world, or at least the U.S. And also possibly created AIDS and unleashed it in Africa.
- Rwandan cell phones have two volumes: loud, and deafening. If there is a “silent” or “vibrate” setting, it remains elusive to the people in my village. And good luck if you’re stuck in a twege (a small van crammed with people that serves as public transportation) where someone decides to share the music stored on their phone with the whole bus. Telecommunications is a growing industry in Rwanda, and rising standards of living are reflected in the fact that many Rwandans carry cell phones.
Most of the bus and taxi drivers in Rwanda will name their cars interesting names. Often they're religiously themed, like or "Jesus is Life", but sometimes they can be really funny translations. One of the best ones I've seen: "Chris Brown" on the back of the bus, and "Thank You God" on the front of the same bus. This one is pretty good too: