It won’t surprise you that Rwandan and American culture differs in some fundamental ways. When you visit a country, and try to become part of that culture there is no fixed list of do’s and don’ts. I find understanding another cultures is a dynamic, complex process that is plagued by mistakes and misunderstandings. I find myself questioning assumptions and values that have been a part of my life for a long time. I strive to be culturally sensitive, which means knowing about and respecting the local norms, but not necessarily agreeing with all of them.
When I am asked about Rwandan culture by my students and friends, it is impossible to offer perspectives without generalizing. Culture is, at its core, all about groups. I approach generalizations with skepticism and wariness. However, generalizations have provided me potentially accurate and useful information – they are at least warning signs along the road about where to pay more attention and look for information about individuals – not groups.
One cultural difference is that we Americans are proud of our stuff – our cars, clothes, and what we can buy with our expendable income. Some of us believe that if we drive a nice car or wear designer clothes it sends a message about our prosperity and success and this is important to validate who we are.
In Rwanda, people are humble and there is great attention to how behaviors might make others feel. Rwandans don’t flout their possessions not cars, or clothes – not even food. I have not seen a single person eating any food on the street or in a public area – not a biscuit, a sandwich, or a donut. Unlike many countries there are no street food venders here. You don’t even see people on the street drinking from water bottles or soda cans. The thinking here in Rwanda is that if you eat on the street it could lead others, who are not so fortunate and may be hungry, to feel badly and ashamed of their deprivation.
I often take for granted all I have in my life. For me, an empty plastic water bottle is trash – something to be recycled. In Rwanda, consuming water in public isn’t done because the plastic bottle is a valued resource not available to everyone. When I visit poor villages children often crowd around to stare at me and play games with me. They do not ask for money or candy, as they often do in other countries. Instead, in Rwanda they ask if I have an empty water bottle they can have. For this is what they need to collect water from the public water spout to feed their thirst.