My earliest impressions of the Rwandan culture were that the climate was pleasant, the terrain was marked by thousands of hills, and the people cherished a strong sense of community that made me feel more welcomed and comfortable as each day passed. I spent over three months living in the mountainous northwest of Rwanda last summer, as part of the Intercordia Canada program. While there, I lived with a local family in the town of Musanze, while volunteer-teaching at a nearby primary school with two other Canadians.
Before arriving, my excitement for experiencing such a radically different culture gave me a naïve overconfidence and made me feel unstoppable in the face of “difference”. But reality settled in soon, when I started to feel sick early on (likely a combination of jet lag, an entirely new diet, and initially very long daily school-teaching schedules).
Convinced I had malaria, I asked my 17-year-old host brother what was wrong with me, and he laughed at my idea, as he had experienced the disease in the past. He told me the climate’s too cool in the mountainous north for mosquitos, and “everyone gets sick” during the rainy season. When the dry season rolled around, I was told the same thing, due to the dust, so I figured it was just a bad flu.
A few days passed and I felt good as new, and began adjusting much more easily from then on.
Speaking French helped me adjust to a nation that only recently switched to English-taught education. The local languages of Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili took time to pick up on, but I could eventually hold basic small talk. This, of course, is crucial if you want to become less of an obnoxious tourist, and begin connecting with those around you, in a country where you simply can’t pass someone on the street without exchanging some form of greeting.
My stomach eventually adjusted to a simpler and healthier diet, and general eating pattern. Lunch at the school would typically be served around noon and would consist of “posho” (made from maize flour) and beans, sometimes with cassava. Dinner would often be served at around 9 pm, once everyone in the family had returned from the day’s work, consisting typically of rice, beans, squash, and cassava, with the occasional treat of either chicken – killed on the day- beef, or locally-caught fish. In the hours before dinner, preparing meals was a great opportunity to learn about food (obviously), but also some Kinyarwanda, and about Rwandan culture and history.
Vincent, my host brother, taught me so much. He taught me about Rwanda today, Rwanda at the time of independence, Rwanda during the Genocide and related ongoing violence in Eastern Congo, today, and how to cook Rwandan dishes. The three I’ve had the most success with are chapatti, beignet (originally French, but common in Rwanda), and “Merci Madame” (deep-fried potato balls, filled with various vegetables).
Not only was I learning about Rwandan culture, bits and pieces of the languages, and how to make tasty treats, but things at school were steadily going smoother. My version of English was gradually shifting to the Rwandan way of speaking. I became used to using words like “rub” instead of “erase”, “extend” instead of “move”, and saying “sorry” not as an apology, but as a more general expression of sympathy to someone. I began sitting in on other teachers’ classes to learn effective teaching methods and learned a lot myself in Rwandan “social studies” class. The teachers soon became some of my better friends and, naturally, had much to teach me about East African ways of life.
Before going to Rwanda, all I really knew was that the country suffered through a terrible genocide in 1994, resulting in almost a million deaths. After all, that’s really the only image of Rwanda that’s been exposed to the western world in recent years. The reaction of most people when I mentioned I’d be going to Rwanda was they figured it would be a dangerous experience. To say that the whole area is peaceful and without conflict would be wrong, as violence has persisted in recent years across the border, in neighbouring Congo. But while the memories of the 1994 atrocities have remained in the minds of the Rwandan people, they are driven to prevent such violent conflict from ever happening again. The general character of the people nowhere near reflects attitudes of hostility, anger, or violence.
Whether it was with my host-family, the other teachers, or walking down the street, encountering swarms of children or a complete stranger, I always felt a strong sense of “togetherness” in a country that feels like a nationwide community. Rather than the common misconception of East Africans needing help from the western world, I learned, on the contrary, Rwanda and its people have many valuable characteristics from which the much less “community-oriented” western world could learn.
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