Note that many of these things are particular to life in rural villages in Rwanda. Rwandans in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) for example, generally don’t call me muzungu and dress codes are more relaxed (although still conservative by American standards).
- In Rwanda it’s perfectly okay to pick your nose in public. Anywhere, anytime, anybody. There is literally zero cultural stigma. If you watch Rwandan TV, you will see about half the audience picking their noses. Even my colleagues at the health center—nurses!----will be talking to me and the next thing I know, one or two fingers will be up their nose digging for gold. At the very least, I lose my train of thought. Or I just burst out laughing at how crazy the situation is, to my colleagues’ great confusion.
The worst is when you’ve seen someone picking their nose, and then they try to shake your hand. It’s a mental battle for me every time: Insult the person by trying to dodge their handshake? Or risk getting boogers/snot spread on my hands? Thus the reason I always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket at work…
- People think it’s perfectly normal to ask you how much money you make (and they tell you how much money they make) and how much you weigh (and identify people as “the fat woman” or “the fat man”, and no one is offended).
It’s really, really hard to describe America to people in my village, many of whom have never even been to the capital city, Kigali (a very modern city, and the only place there are really foreigners). It’s like trying to describe the taste of a tree tomato to all of you.
- Staring: Like picking your nose, there’s no taboo about staring at people (or at least staring at an umuzungu (white person/foreigner) like me. This has been one of the hardest things for me to get used to. I’ve been here in Rusizi for 4 months, and I also replaced a Peace Corps Volunteer who had been here for 2 years before me. But sometimes it really does feel like I’m in a fishbowl. At church, people in the rows in front of me will turn around and stare. Not for a few minutes. More like half an hour. At the Health Center, sometimes people will press their faces against the glass and just watch me work.
While working on a vaccination campaign
Groups of children still run after me yelling, “UMUZUNGU!!!!!” or shouting all the English they’ve memorized in school, which is usually something like, “HELLOHOWAREYOUIAMFINETHANKYOUTEACHER!” or “GOODMORNINGMOTHER!” no matter what time of day it is. The nuns asked me if I did that when I was little when I saw a black person in America. Umm…no. Even though I tried to explain that America is a melting pot of cultures and that not all Americans are white, it’s still hard for them to understand, even when I pointed out that President Obama’s mother was white and his father black.
- Women aren’t supposed to whistle. Something about summoning snakes? I don’t get it. But I save all my whistling for when I’m alone in my room.
- Only men are supposed to milk the cows here…I’m thinking there’s no “8 maids a milking” in their version of the “12 Days of Christmas.”
- One of the biggest challenges for me here has been the cultural difference in the perception of time and timeliness. In America, people wear watches and there are clocks everywhere and we have everything planned and scheduled seemingly every minute, sometimes a year in advance. If you’re going to be more than 5 minutes late to something, you have to call otherwise it’s considered rude. Here in my village, time is a very fluid concept. Meetings are over before they even start. “Soon” can mean a few hours or a few years. Every morning we have a meeting that is supposed to start at 7 am…it never ever starts before 7:45 am. I’ve arranged to have meetings with some of my colleagues at 2 pm, and they’ve shown up at 4. Ironically, I never ever wore a watch in the U.S., but I always wear one here.
Stay tuned for part 2!