Archive for the ‘Rwandan culture’ Category

Even after ten months of observing Rwanda and Rwandan culture, there are still many things that I will never understand or that will never cease to entertain me. Here they are…

1. Many Rwandans, like many Africans, have a perception of time that is different from westerners and tend to be late.  “African time” is not just a stereotype; it’s based on reality. However, drivers here always seem to be in such an incredible rush that they can’t stop for pedestrians and in fact often pull out of parking spots while pedestrians are right behind them. Drivers gun the engine even when they are approaching a traffic light, pass each other all the time – no matter how treacherous the turn, and generally speed like NASCAR racers.

2. During the rainy season, household water is less reliable. In fact, whenever it rains heavily there’s a pretty high chance that the pipes will be empty. After months of bewildered frustration, a friend told me that it’s because the heavy rains wash mud into the pipes, clogging them.

3. As I mentioned in my post about culture, it is a serious taboo to eat in public. However, public urination (for men) and nose picking are not taboos at all. It’s hard to go a few days without spotting someone digging for gold or a man peeing in bushes in public sight…Hence the importance of Purell.

4.Meeting a member of the opposite sex for a drink at a bar is considered very serious and gives people the impression that the two are a couple – even if it is a work-related meeting or catching up with a friend or neighbor. However, inviting a member of the opposite sex into one’s home is less serious. (Because people can’t see and so they won’t start spreading rumors.)

5. It is not typical for men to give flowers to women. In fact it is more appropriate for women to give flowers to men. Go figure.

6. Cows play an important role in Rwandans society, having influenced the development of different social classes based on the number of cows one owns. Milk is abundant and delicious here. However, there is a serious lack of variety in cheese options and very few good cheeses.

7. Rwanda is known for growing delicious coffee, yet most people drink Nescafe. This is because most coffee is exported and the remainder is served at expensive cafes or sold at a premium at grocery stores.

8. Rwandan men and women alike are notoriously soft spoken. I often have to strain to hear people when they come to my office and whisper a message to me. However, there is no concept of “noise pollution” when it comes to other sounds: music and radio are blasted at painfully loud levels at any hour of the day – in public, at home, on buses, in shops, etc. I guess people need something to fill the silence.

9. Most Rwandans don’t eat sweets or dessert and say that they don’t like sugar. However, based on my observations, Rwandans put on average 3 heaping teaspoons into their morning tea and drink Fanta and other sodas to diabetes-inducing levels.

10. People in Kigali, both Rwandans and expats, consider the poorer neighborhood of Nyamirambo as unsafe. In reality, I think it is the safest neighborhood because there are always people on the street at any time of the day or night. I actually find Kiyovu, one of the wealthier neighborhoods, to be the least safe because the streets are empty and people are always behind their walls and cars. If someone tried to mug me on the street in Kiyovu he would definitely succeed; however if someone tried to mug me on the street in Nyamirambo he would be apprehended and beaten up by more than one passerby.

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Kwita Izina

Rwandan names have deep significance and offer a unique lens into culture and family here. For those of you who share my fascination with etymology of words and names, Kinyarwanda names provide a trove of discoveries.

There are three types of names that an individual can have, including a Kinyarwanda given name (surname), a name from the father’s side (family name), and a Christian or Muslim name, depending on the religion. Some Rwandans keep all three names, but it is more common for people to choose only two as their official name – in some cases, parents let the child decide which combination of names s/he wants to be called. Some parents give all of their children names with with the same root to have a familial theme. For Catholics, a Christian name is given only at the baby’s Baptism.

About one month after a baby is born, the family holds a naming ceremony, called kwita izina. At this ceremony friends and family gather to celebrate the birth and offer suggestions of names for the child. I recently attended the kwita izina of a friend, Olivier, whose wife, Jeannette, had just given birth to a baby girl.

Olivier, Jeannette, and their newborn baby

Each of the 40-some guests present stood up and suggested a Kinyarwanda name paired with a Christian name.

A guest offering a name suggestion

My name suggestion was Umutesi Helene.

Jeannette, her almost-named baby, and me

Ultimately, Jeannette and Olivier unveiled a name that they had already chosen: Keza Mporera Arnica (pronounced KAY-zuh mm-ho-RAY-ruh AR-ni-ca). Keza (“beautiful”) is her Kinyarwanda name, Mporera (“compassion, mercy”) is her family name from Olivier’s grandmother, and Arnica (a healing flower) is her Christian name.

I’ve started working on a list of some Kinyarwanda names and their meanings. There are a few themes, primarily variations on the root imana, or “God”, and variations on the root kunda, or “love.” It is still a work in progress, so I kindly request that any Rwandans reading please correct mistakes I’ve made about meanings or gender. Names from this list may be either one’s family name (name inherited from the father) or Kinyarwanda given name (surname). Here it is so far:


  • Ganza – be prosperous, be known
  • Gatanazi – strong
  • Gatera – invader, attacker
  • Habamenshi – people talk a lot
  • Hitimana – named by God
  • Kamanzi – warrior, hero
  • Mbarushimana – I am luckier than you
  • Mugabo – man
  • Mukunzi – lover, sweetheart
  • Ndabarinzi – I am protecting you
  • Ngoga – courage, speed
  • Nshizirungu – has friends, not lonely
  • Ntampaka – no disagreement
  • Ntarugera – safe, no worries
  • Rukundo – love
  • Shema – pride
  • Shyaka – commitment, courage
  • Turatsinze – we are the winners


  • Giramata – has milk
  • Girinka – has cow
  • Gisa – meaning unknown, from old Kinyarwanda
  • Imbabazi – sorry
  • Isaro – bead, jewel
  • Kabatesi, Umutesi – stubborn
  • Keza – beautiful
  • Kirezi – jewel, brilliant, beauty
  • Kundwa, Mukundwa – be loved
  • Mpore, Mporera – compassion, mercy
  • Nkunzi – be loved
  • Nzayisenga – I will worship God
  • Safi – clean, pure
  • Umubyeyi – parents
  • Umulisa – meaning unknown, from old Kinyarwanda
  • Umutoni – elite
  • Uwase – for the father


Kunda (“love”) root:

  • Bakunda – they love
  • Iradukunda – God loves us
  • Nkunda – I love
  • Nyirarukundo – something else with love, not sure…
  • Tumukunde – let’s love him/her, lovely
  • Uzamukunda – you will be loved

Imana (“God”) root:

  • Akimana – precious daughter/son of God
  • Dusabimana – let’s pray to God
  • Habimana – something else with God, not sure
  • Habyarimana – God produces
  • Hakizimana – God gives wealth
  • Ndagijimana – protected by God
  • Nsabimana – something else with God, not sure
  •  Uwimana – God’s daughter/son

And other unisex names:

  • Abayisenga – worshippers
  • Hirwa, Uhirwa – be lucky, lucky one
  • Ingabire – grace
  • Kwizerwa, Mwizerwa – trustworthy
  • Muhire, Umuhire – blessed, happy
  • Ndayishimye – I am happy
  • Nkurunziza – good news
  • Nzabamwita – we will name him/her later (funny one)
  • Tumurere – let’s educate him/her
  • Tuyishimye – we are happy
  • Uwamahoro – peace, serenity

Most Christian names in Rwanda are Francophone. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Chantal
  • Emmanuel
  • Eric
  • Jacqueline
  • Jean + something (m): Jean de Dieu, Jean Damascene, Jean d’Amour, Jean Aimé, Jean Baptiste, Jean Bosco, Jean Paul, Jean Paulin
  • Justine
  • Olive (f)/Olivier (m)

On a personal note, I have falled in love with the word Amata (ah-MAH-tah) and I’ve added it to my ongoing list of names for a potential future daughter. I find it special for multiple reasons: In Kinyarwanda it means “milk,” in Hindi it means “immortality,” and in Latin it is the feminine perfect passive participle of amare, meaning “loved.” It’s also a beautiful name and if my potential future daughter decides it’s too “weird” she can just shorten it to Amy! (I also like Izina (ee-ZEE-nah), which ironically means “name.”)

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Yesterday, April 7th, marked the 17th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, in which around 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives within 100 days. The mourning period lasts for one week, during which there are memorial services, candlelight vigils, televised documentaries and radio broadcasts about the genocide, and public billboards about remembrance and commemoration. As purple is the color of mourning here, people can be seen wearing purple ribbons throughout the city. Businesses are closed, music is not played loudly, and the streets are virtually empty to observe the first day.

A somber time, this is the week when the entire country reflects upon, discusses, and relives a painful history that is generally kept out of public discourse the rest of the year. All of the Rwandans I know have been affected by the genocide in some way – losing close or distant family members, being displaced, fleeing into exile, having their schooling disrupted, or being traumatized from seeing horrors that no one should ever have to witness, let alone young children. However, despite all of the suffering Rwandans have endured, it is not what defines them.

This week and its commemoration events remind me of what it is easy to forget as a foreigner here: that Rwanda was ravaged by genocide a mere seventeen years ago. Going about my day-to-day events and seeing Rwanda from the surface, genocide and conflict is often the last thing on my mind. I think about a new project I’m working on, the development I see every day in the shape of new construction or repaved roads, or the clever and entrepreneurial ways that people manage to make a living. I find it extremely hard to imagine that the streets I walk every day in Nyamirambo were covered with corpses seventeen years ago. In fact, I rarely hear the word genocide spoken out loud and I only see it written in the newspaper occasionally.

Ironically, from the outside Rwanda still seems to be defined by its past: when people hear Rwanda they immediately conjure up images of skeletons in mass graves and the phrase “Never Again.” However from the inside, Rwanda defines itself as it envisions itself in the future: a peaceful and prosperous middle-income country, as articulated in Vision 2020. While it is important to remember the past and honor the dead, Rwandans have developed a collective coping mechanism of avoiding to speak at length about their troubled past, at least in public. That is, with the exception of during this week and through the government’s National Commission to Fight Genocide.

While it is important for Rwanda to continue moving forward and escape its past, it is equally important to remember and honor its past to ensure that “never again” is a reality.

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This past Friday morning, all of Kigali was excused from work to vote for local government officials at the village level. A friend of mine who volunteers for the electoral commission invited me to join him on his task of observing local elections. As I had the morning off from work and I’m always a fan of participatory democracy, I jumped at the offer.

After a bumpy 15-minute moto ride into the deep hills of Nyamirambo (an area that I now think of as “The Road of a Thousand Moguls”), we arrived at the grounds of a school for primary and secondary students.  In the field behind the school, a few hundred people were gathered in clusters of about 30-50 people, all quite engaged in animated group discussions.

Some people taking refuge from the bright mid-morning sun under parasols

Never having observed any kind of elections outside of the U.S., I wasn’t sure what to expect but I imagined there would be some kind of ballot or booth system. However, my friend and his fellow election supervisors soon corrected my misconception, informing me that this type of election at the village level does not use any ballot or secret voting. Instead, groups of villages (called “umudugudus”) meet at one site to discuss amongst themselves and come to a group decision to elect some candidates for local leadership. A village is made up of about 50 households. A cluster of villages comprises a cell (called an “umurenge”). This particular cell was made up of nine villages from around Nyamirambo, the neighborhood of Kigali where I live.

The positions that village residents were campaigning to fill included one Village Chairperson and four representatives in charge of Social Affairs, Development, Security, and Information. These uncompensated positions are held for five years and it is mandatory that women comprise at least 30% of the leadership for each village.

After discussing amongst themselves about the merits of each candidate, the voting was ultimately achieved by village residents lining up behind their candidate of choice. The winning candidate was the one with the most people lined up behind him or her. As my friend explained, this non-secret voting system is used because a) there is no government budget for paper ballots or machines at this local level and b) since everyone in the villages knows one another the process is more of a collective discussion (and occasionally debate) amongst neighbors and friends.

Voting in "The Line"

The simultaneous group discussions were punctuated by occasional cheering and outbursts, as people came to a decision and elected leaders. Groups of villages carried some of the winning candidates on shoulders to signify their approval and excitement at having ushered in a new generation of local leadership.

After the nine villages elected their individual leaders, they joined together to elect leaders for the entire cell. Through the same process of lining up behind candidates, they elected representatives in charge of similar areas, in addition to positions like Representative for Women’s Affairs and Representative for Youth.

People lining up to vote for Representative for Women's Affairs

While observing the elections, I asked my friend if he was planning to run for any position. “No, I’m too busy,” he responded. To my surprise, he called me up a few hours after I had left the site and told me that he had been elected the Representative for Youth. His friends and neighbors had persuaded him and, as an upstanding citizen and all-around serious person, he felt it was his duty to assume the position on behalf of his community.

As I do stand out amongst a sea of Rwandans, several people took note of my presence and asked me if I was running for any position. I’m fairly certain they were joking, but it would be quite a good story indeed if, by some fluke I ended up being elected to a position. Perhaps I could be the Representative for Mzungu Affairs?

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Wedding Part II

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Rwandan weddings have three parts: a traditional introduction ceremony, a religious church ceremony, and a civil ceremony. Last month, I was a bridesmaid for my neighbor Janet’s traditional introduction ceremony to her fiance Vedaste and this past weekend I had the honor of participating in their religious ceremony, again as a bridesmaid. At this ceremony, bridesmaids wore more modern garb instead of the traditional mushanana. The color theme of the wedding was pink: the bridesmaids’ gowns, groomsmen’s ties, decorations, champagne, cake, and even the napkins were all shades of pink.

Me trying to strike a serious Rwandan face

The church ceremony, held at Janet’s Pentecostal church, was quite dynamic with a lively chorus and a priest preaching exuberantly in Kinyarwanda. After the ceremony, it is the custom here for the bridal party to travel to the reception in a caravan of SUVs decorated with ribbons (in this case, pink). At the front of every wedding caravan is a pick-up truck with a camera man filming the whole procession.

Before entering the reception area, the bridal party and later the entire family participated in a photo shoot outside. After photographs of every permutation possible were taken, the guests entered the reception hall and awaited the bridal party. Janet and Vedaste entered through a formation of bridesmaids throwing flower petals, groomsmen holding cracklers, and family members creating a canopy of calla lilies.

Guests taking pictures of the wedding procession

After passing through the procession and cutting a pink ribbon, Janet and Vedaste assumed their seat at the front of the room on a stage. Along with the rest of the bridal party, I followed suit and joined them on stage at what felt like the royal dais. Per the custom here, the rest of the guests sat in audience-like rows and settled in for the long haul of speeches, present-giving, Fanta, cake, sometimes singing. Unlike American wedding receptions, there is very rarely dancing and even more rarely do the guests get a meal. (I was lucky to be on stage with an unlimited supply of cake for the bridal party.)

As an interlude between speeches, there is a ritual present giving, where all the guests with presents line up to give them to the couple. Some of the presents were wrapped but others, home goods ranging from hangers to cauliflower to brooms to chickens, were presented simply on the heads of guests. (I have a feeling that the chickens seriously resented being part of the wedding, as they started squawking and thrashing violently during the only silent prayer of the reception.)

Guests lining up to bestow assorted household goods upon the couple

Janet, her husband, Vedaste, and a chicken.

La vie en rose

After the reception the bridal party and some of the guests drove to the couple’s new home for the last ceremony of the day, called “gutwikurura.” It is the tradition here for the woman to leave her home to move in to her husband’s house the very day of the marriage. He is expected to furnish the home completely and she is expected to bring household goods (like the wedding presents, rice, garbage cans, etc.). Gutwikurura is the ceremony in which family members and friends come to the house to congratulate the newlyweds and bring them food and presents in traditional Rwandan baskets (“ibiseke”).

Also at their new home the evening after the wedding, the couple respects other rituals that have evolved over the years. I was told that in the past, wedding guests waited while the couple consummated the marriage to find out if the woman was a virgin. That is thankfully no longer the case (at least not in Kigali – I think it may still happen in the some rural parts of the country). Some variations on the wedding evening rituals include the man cutting a piece of his wife’s hair to symbolize that she belongs to him, a young bridesmaid being given to the bride as a symbolic little sister to help out for a few days, an aunt or godmother putting a mosquito net over the couple to symbolize their union, the man chasing his wife around the house, and more.

It’s been quite an experience to participate in all of Janet and Vedaste’s wedding festivities and I really appreciate having such an intimate lens into Rwandan culture. With the wedding season dying down, I guess I’ll have to find other activities to fill my Saturday afternoons!

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What fascinates me about experiencing other cultures are the everyday norms and rules, some subtle and some obvious, that differ from my own culture. Here are some interesting insights I’ve picked up so far throughout my time in Rwanda. They come from conversations with Rwandans, personal experiences (often in the form of trial and error or faux-pas), and my own observations. I’ve grouped them together under different category headings.


It is considered extremely rude to eat in public; meaning in the street, on public transportation, and sometimes even at large parties where strangers are present. In addition, adults don’t eat in front of their in-laws. In the past, adults didn’t even eat in front of their own children and would often take their food into their bedroom.

Some men will only eat their wife’s cooking and will refuse to eat any food cooked by a housekeeper.

Something that really surprised me is that adults here do not typically eat sweets. They consider cookies, cakes, chocolate, ice cream, etc. to be for children. I learned this the hard way when I gave a batch of homemade cookies to the vendor who gives me free chapatti and brochette, only to find out from a friend later that it was mildly insulting to do so. It’s true, ever since then he just hasn’t been as generous with the free food…

It was said in the past (and sometimes still today) that women are not supposed to eat goat meat, for two reasons: 1) It will make them grow hairs on their chin, and 2) It will make them stubborn. However women tell me that that “rule” was invented by greedy men who wanted all the good meat.

It is said that if a couple eats their dinner lying down in bed, their children will be selfish.

As is the case in many African countries, being fat is considered a good thing. It reflects wealth and power. It is not uncommon for a Rwandan to pay someone the compliment “you have grown fat!”

Most of the bananas here are mini, about a third of the size of American bananas. They come as a bushel, and sometimes two mini bananas grow to become fused together. If a woman eats a double banana, it is said that she will give birth to twins.

Going out to eat at restaurants is actually a fairly new concept that has only taken hold with the influence of foreigners. In the recent past, if a man or a couple went out to eat, it meant that the wife was a bad cook or that the man did not have a wife at all. Even today there are many Rwandans generally do not dine out, either for financial or cultural reasons.

Rwandans say that if you eat fish brains, the devil will come visit you that night.

Some Rwandans refuse to eat beans because they say that eating beans makes one’s skin become darker. If someone has very dark skin, Rwandans will say that s/he must have eaten a lot of beans.

People say that eating green bananas causes people’s butts to become fat.

Similar to a Jewish dietary rule, it is forbidden to eat milk and meat together.

In the past, it was considered taboo for in-laws to eat at a married couple’s house. It was also taboo for them to stay the night and they would have to find another place in the neighborhood to stay.

If someone is able to creep up behind you and make you bend by pushing on the back of your knees, it means that you can’t make good ugali (a doughy dish made from different types of flour and dipped into sauce).


Rwandans say that drinking milk makes women beautiful. When there is a beautiful woman, Rwandans might say that she must have drank a lot of milk.

If you invite someone or even multiple people out to dinner or drinks, it is expected that you will pay for them. (I learned that one the hard way.)

Two of the main beers here are Primus and Mutzig. It’s said that men typically drink Mutzig and women drink Primus. However I’m partial to Mutzig and one of my good Rwandan male friends is partial to Primus, so I’m not sure how serious that tendency is.

When Rwandans are served a bottle of beer with a glass, they will sometimes pour a few drops into the glass, swish the liquid around, and then pour it on the ground behind them. This serves two functions: it symbolizes sharing the drink with ancestors and also helps clean out the glass.

When a guest stops by for a visit to a friend or family member, it is expected that the host will offer him or her something to drink – most common is Fanta or beer. It is considered very rude to offer water, at least not until the guest has finished the first drink. There is an expression in Rwanda that means something along the lines of “water is empty.” (I find this eschewal particularly ironic in a region that most of the world sees as lacking access to reliable clean drinking water.)

Gender Relations and Family Life

When a married couple has children, their names essentially change to reflect the identity of their first-born child. For example, my parents are named Joshua and Gloria. In Rwanda, as soon as I was born everyone who knows them (friends, family members, community members, neighbors, perhaps even colleagues) would start to call them Papa Helaina and Mama Helaina. It provides for interesting commentary on the location of identity and the importance of procreating and having a family.

When a couple is planning a wedding, the man and the woman separately hold numerous “planning meetings” at which they meet with their friends and family to organize and finalize the details for the marriage. I attended one but wasn’t able to contribute much besides a smile and the occasional excited nod of understanding.

One of the ways that the family of a bride prepares for a wedding is to plant a few banana trees along the road leading to their house. In the past this was done to show that the family was relatively wealthy, because it was implied that they could also supply their guests with banana beer from the banana trees.

As soon as a couple gets married, the woman is expected to get pregnant. If she doesn’t get pregnant within a few months the entire family and community will judge and assume the couple is impotent.

When a couple shares a bed, the man always sleeps on the side away from the wall so that he can protect his wife/girlfriend in the case of an intruder or problem.

It is considered a serious taboo for an unmarried man to spend the night at an unmarried woman’s home. However it is a bit more acceptable, though still sometimes gossip-inducing, for an unmarried woman to spend the night at an unmarried man’s home.

This is part of a larger discussion about gender and double standards/disparate access and opportunities: it is not acceptable for women to go out dancing without men. If they do so, they will be considered prostitutes.

Traditionally, women in Rwanda are fairly meek when they are in public. There is a saying that my students told me – “a good woman is a silent woman.” Fortunately that paradigm is changing today – and I do my best in each class session to pull the girls out of their shells. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth instead. However I’ve seen a gradual improvement in their confidence and willingness to volunteer their ideas, which is encouraging.

I have observed at large parties or meals that women generally wait for the men to take food before serving themselves. This I assume is an extension of domestic hierarchy and deference on the part of women.

It is completely acceptable for men to hold hands in public here. On one street I can usually count at least ten pairs of men (of all ages) holding hands and walking together. On top of that, men also walk arm in arm or arm over shoulder, share seats, sit on each others laps, dance very close, and do other intimate things that would peg them as homosexual in the U.S. However here in Rwanda, homosexuality is an extreme taboo so I suppose that’s why men can be so intimate.

On a similar note, when men who are close friends greet each other, they embrace very intimately in what I like to call a “forehead kiss”: with eyes closed they touch opposite sides of the forehead twice and then once in the middle, while shaking hands or holding each other’s shoulders. It’s very sweet and endearing to watch.

It is forbidden for a married person to say the name of his or her mother-in-law or father-in-law. When greeting them or even describing them to others, people cannot say their name and have to describe them instead.


Rwandan English: There are certain words that have been appropriated here to have different meanings or different weights. For some reason, they all start with s:

–          Serious: Used very commonly here to mean a person who is respectable, trustworthy, and reliable. It has a lot of weight and is a very serious word. One of the gravest insults to someone is calling them “not serious.”

–          Stubborn: This essentially means the opposite of serious; someone who is not respectable or reliable.

–          Smart: Used as as compliment to mean that you are dressed very well. It took some adjusting to get used to hearing “Helaina, you are smart today!”

–          Somehow: Appropriated to mean “somewhat.” Example: “I am somehow hungry.”

–          Saloon: Appropriated to mean “salon” as in “hair salon.” The area where I live, Nyamirambo, is full of saloons.

–          Sambusa: Used to mean what I know of as a “samosa.” The term is also used in Ethiopia and Somalia.


On someone’s birthday, friends pour a bottle of water over his or her head as they sing “happy birthday” in Kinyarwanda. I also learned that one the hard way.

A superstition I have heard students tell me is that people with small handwriting are considered lazy and selfish, while those with big handwriting are considered generous and courageous.

If you drop things and have bouts of clumsiness, Rwandans’ often instinctive response is to say “you need a husband/you need a wife.”

If a Rwandan lends something to a friend and s/he loses it, it is considered a taboo to ask the friend to replace it or pay for it. Rwandans just forget about the lost thing and move on.

If a bird poops on your head, it means you will get rich.

If you see a cat in the morning, your day will be bad.

If you say the word “needle” (“urushinge”) before breakfast, you will have a bad day.

If someone causes you to have an accident, either on purpose or by mistake, Rwandans believe that saying that person’s name in the morning is bad luck and, similar to the needle issue above, will cause you to have a bad day. For example, one night last week I was walking with some friends and I turned my head to answer my friend Amani’s question. As I did so, I didn’t see a shallow gutter (luckily empty) in front of me and fell down, cutting my toe. A Rwandan friend told me that I should not say Amani’s name in the morning. Instead of the saying the unlucky friend’s name, Rwandans say “umutavugwa,” which means something like “speak badly” (or as I like to think of it, “he-who-shall-not-be-named”).

When Rwandans wish you good night, they say “Sleep in a hard place.” The reasoning for this is that if you sleep in a soft place you will be so comfortable that you’ll never wake up.

When someone is at home sick, it is expected that friends, family members, and even coworkers will come to pay him or her a visit. (This is markedly different from the general American mentality of “leave me ALONE to sleep, relax, wallow, and clean up after my own bodily functions.”)

Many Rwandans believe very seriously in spirits and curses performed by traditional healers/sorcerers. Several friends have told me stories of people they know who have been cursed to become crazy after breaking up with a resentful boyfriend or girlfriend. In particular, the town of Kibungo in southeastern Rwanda is considered to be the hub of dark magic where many traditional healers/sorcerers reside.

If a woman sews at night or in the dark, people will discourage her by saying that she is sewing her parents’ eyes shut. This is most likely to prevent women from straining their eyes by sewing under weak light.

Whistling at night is considered a taboo because Rwandans say it summons snakes. It is also a taboo for a woman to whistle any time of the day, because it means she is a prostitute. (I made the mistake of whistling at night…)

When you have the hiccups, Rwandans say that someone is talking about you.

When you have a twitch on your eye or face, people say it is a good omen.

Children up to age 10 were required to take a nap every afternoon after eating lunch and before returning to school. Even some adults still have this habit.

I update this list as I continue learning more about the culture. For any Rwandans or Rwandophiles reading, please feel free to correct any misconceptions I have or contribute your own insight.

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Last weekend, I had the unique pleasure of attending two Rwandan weddings, one on Saturday as a guest and another on Sunday as a bridesmaid. (Coincidentally, both brides were named Janet.)

Weddings are extremely frequent here, especially during the two wedding seasons of November-December and June. I’ve been trying to figure out why weddings happen so often and my unfounded speculation is that there may be a demographic bulge of 20-30 year olds. Because of societal norms and pressures, women tend to get married fairly young here, generally between the ages of 22 and 26. Men, on the other hand, have a longer single shelf life and may frequently be 5-10 years older than their wives.

Rwandan weddings have three parts: a traditional introduction ceremony, a religious ceremony, and a civil ceremony. The wedding that I attended on Saturday was the religious ceremony, a full day affair that started at a church and ended in a reception hall. After a fairly typical Catholic service (illuminated by a near-constant stream of photographs), everyone drove to take more pictures at a nearby garden. Next, everyone returned to the church grounds and the couple entered the reception hall by passing through an arch and cutting a ribbon at the entrance. Unlike the freeform receptions at American weddings, this reception consisted of the guests sitting in audience rows watching members from the wedding party on stage give effusive speeches in Kinyarwanda. The whole reception was a type of dialogue between the two families, in which relatives discussed why the union between the couple was a good idea and why they supported it. At one point two bridesmaids approached the front of the stage where a tower of cakes was waiting and lit sparklers to put in each cake. Everyone was served some cake and Fanta and the sugar highs they provided were instrumental in keeping me awake during the rest of the two hour affair.

The wedding on Sunday was the traditional introduction ceremony, a very dynamic and symbolic event in which the husband is introduced to the wife’s family and vice versa amidst lavish African decorations and often hundreds of guests. It was the wedding of my next door neighbor Janet and the festivities for me started when her sister whisked me off to the salon up the street to have my hair done in a popular style known as a “coq.” It was quite an experience and the end product recalled my late grandmother Marilyn’s hairstyle. See below:

In the process...

Once the hairstylist was finished (read: once he gave up trying to squeeze my stubborn lion’s mane into the smooth puffed wave that the other bridesmaids had), I was led to Janet’s aunt’s house (where the ceremony was held) and taken into a bedroom where the other three bridesmaids were getting ready and flitting about in a typical pre-big event whirlwind. With impressive skill, they quickly helped me into the traditional garb we would all be wearing, called a mushanana: a dress/toga made of silk-like material and draped over one shoulder. Here’s the end product:

Ndi munyarwanda kazi!

As we were getting ready and waiting with Janet, sounds from the ceremony outside wafted through the windows that I kept trying to peek out of. The introduction ceremony is very complex and consists of numerous speeches from both sides of the family in which they discuss why the couple should marry, the giving of the dowry (in the past it was a cow but these days it’s usually just money), traditional dancing and singing, storytelling, and the official introduction of the couple to the public.

Photo shoot of the bride and her maids before our debut

Traditional Rwandan dancers

The groom (dressed as hunter) being officially introduced to his fiance's family

About an hour into the ceremony, it was time for the bride to make her debut, flanked by the four of us bridesmaids bearing gifts for her to give to her fiance’s family.

Me as one of the royal gift bearers

Along with the other bridesmaids and groomsmen (who were also dressed as hunters) I spent the rest of the ceremony sitting under the wedding canopy on a straw mat, trying to keep my mushanana from getting too dirty or crinkled. It was a delightful surprise when everyone at the wedding was served a full meal of meat, pasta, fries, and Fanta. The ceremony continued with family members from opposite sides exchanging gifts and bestowing praise and wishes of success on the couple.

The happy couple sharing a very red drink

It was a true honor to be so intimately included in Janet’s special day. I’m looking forward to her religious ceremony (and three more weddings) next month, where I’ll be wearing the mushanana again – maybe by then I’ll be able to put it on by myself!

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