PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR: November 23, 2010 by Helaina REFERENCES: Helaina's Blog https://helainainrwanda.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/cultural-norms-traditions-taboos-and-superstitions/
"About Me, the author I graduated from Tufts University, where I was an International Relations major and an Empower Fellow of the Institute for Global Leadership. I moved to Rwanda in 2010 as a Princeton-in-Africa Fellow to work with General Rwanda. Afterwards, I worked with Eos Visions, a social enterprise that facilitates educational travel and capacity building. I left Rwanda in 2012 to join the U.S. Foreign Service (diplomatic corps) as a political officer. While I no longer blog on this site, I've left it up as a reference for people looking for information on Rwanda. I monitor the comments sporadically and try to respond, but I apologize for not being able to reply to all in a timely manner. Thank you for your interest in my website and in Rwanda! 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."
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.