Overall, the culture shock of moving to Rwanda hasn’t been as difficult as I anticipated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a piece of cake, but some of the big things you would think would be difficult adjustments haven’t been overwhelming. Using latrines, sitting on top of smelly people in buses, sitting through 3 hour church services, nta kibazo (no problem.) Here are the two things that have proved most frustrating for me.
People love to stop me on the street and ask me when I’ll come visit them or when they can come visit me. Visiting is a big deal in Rwanda. Visits involve sitting alone in a stranger’s house for an hour as they cook you food, then chatting over lunch (or second lunch) and drinking lots of tea, banana beer, or maybe some curdled milk.
What I find frustrating is Rwandans refuse to give a specific time when arranging a visit. They brush off my question and just say, “Oh, I’ll come in the morning.” Seeing as people get up at 5am and are going about their business by 7am, there is a five-hour window of time “in the morning” that I’m expected to wait around my house for them to visit. I bum around my house, hoping the visitor will come sooner rather than later, but I rarely seem to get that lucky. Many times, I’ll wait around until about 11, and then I get frustrated because I want to go out and run errands or go for a walk in my free time so I give up on waiting. Then without fail, about 30 minutes after I leave, the visitor finally shows up and calls me to figure out where I am.
Part of me knows that this is just a cultural difference I have to accept and deal with so I feel guilty for missing visits. The other part of me just wishes these people could work with me and give me a ballpark time and make my life easier.
The other cultural difference that is taking some adjusting to is that Rwandans refuse to give specific directions to their house. “I live over that way, up the mountain,” as they wave in that general direction. When I ask for clarification, they reply, “Just walk that way and ask someone.” But I’m asking you- just tell me now! When you follow their advice and ask someone along the way for directions, this person only gives you a few of the steps to your destination. Then you have to find another person to give you the next few steps. It’s a process.
Rwandans also like to tell you, “Oh yes, it is so close, so close,” as to not discourage you from reaching your destination. The fact that they’re afraid to tell me how to go somewhere and how long it will take makes me assume the route is long and arduous, and it ends up discouraging me from embarking in the first place!
In Germany, our program managers taught us the mantra: it’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just different. Through all my cross-cultural experiences, I’ve always found myself coming back to this phrase. It’s so important to remember that your customs and beliefs aren’t the only ones. It’s never my way or the highway. It’s just different. Even though adjusting can be really hard, just accept the differences and accept them for what they are.
So with greater tolerance, I’m off to patiently wait for my next visitor to arrive sometime this morning.