Rwanda Etiquette

When you travel to Rwanda and especially when you have the intention to do business in Rwanda, it is essential to inform yourself about the culture and the etiquettes of Rwanda. To help you, we have mabe a short summary of the available information on the web. If you have any questions about specific topics, please feel free to contact us on info@rwandachamber.org

Greetings
Men greeting Men – A handshake is appropriate in most situations. Handshakes tend to be energetic and very often linger through the greeting process and sometimes the entire conversation which may include walking where it is common to continue hold/shake hands. As a show of respect/ deference its is common to grasp the right forearm with your left hand when shaking hands. In casual situations a low hand slap is common. Many men also share a light touching of the side of forehead to the side of the other person’s forehead—first the right side, then the left.

Women greeting Women – A handshake and/or nod of acknowledgment is appropriate in most situations. If you would like to show great respect you may also place your left hand over your right elbow/forearm when handshaking. Many times women will hold hands with other women, and often the handshake is prolonged into this hand-holding. . Close friends or family members usually hug and exchange kisses on the cheek, alternating sides. If you are unsure what to do, just follow the lead of your Rwandan counterpart.
Greetings between Men & Women – Appropriate greetings depend on the nature of the relationship and region. A handshake is usually appropriate but it is best to wait for the woman to extend her hand, otherwise a bow or a nod of acknowledgment will suffice.

Note: It’s a good idea to use your right hand when shaking hands. Shaking hands is expected in business or government meetings.

Communication
• Rwandans tend to communicate more directly in certain situations and indirectly in others. For example, people may ask whether or not you are married and/or have children, but may not directly voice their displeasure in a public setting.
• Rwandans may avoid telling the truth if it might hurt or upset the person they are speaking with. While it may be seen as lying by some, most Rwandans feel that they are being sensitive to the person’s feelings.
• It’s best to avoid asking about someone’s ethnicity, making any referral to the war/genocide, discussing politics, or sex.
• If you ask about someone’s family, be prepared to hear that many may have been killed. An appropriate response would be, “I am very sorry for your loss”.
• Good topics of conversation include: food, the Rwandan landscape, your home country, sports, and the weather.
• Humor plays a big role in communicating and most Rwandans enjoy a good joke. However, it is best to avoid sarcasm as it may not translate well, if at all.
• Rwandans tend to be very indirect, talking around issues instead of discussing them directly. Conversations are usually preceded by questions about the family, etc. and other niceties.

Personal space and touching
It’s a good idea to learn some terms in Kinyarwanda. A simple “Mwaramutse” in the morning (or “Mwiriwe” in the afternoon) will make people smile and open up to you. Rwandans enjoy meeting foreigners who make an effort to learn their language and culture, both of which are marvelous. Learning even a little will go a long way with them.

• Personal space tends to be very minimal. People often talk very close to each other and less than an arm’s length is common in most situations.
• On public transportation, personal space is limited to non-existent. It is common to see people crowed into a bus or taxi with no space in between. This tends to be the case more in rural areas vs. urban.
• When two people of the same sex are talking, touching is acceptable. It is common to touch the hands, arms, and shoulders as well as hold hand while walking. This is seen as a sign of friendship.
• When two people of the opposite sex talk there is very little to no touching. The only appropriate touch is usually a handshake/greeting.
• One should avoid touching elders and superiors superfluously. Touching on the arm is quite common, but it should also be understood that touching someone of the opposite sex can easily be misconstrued as flirting.

Eye contact
• Generally, people prefer indirect eye contact. This does not mean you can’t look at somebody directly, but continuous eye contact during conversations is not a must.
• Overly direct eye contact can be considered aggressive by some. This is especially the case when speaking with superiors or elders.
• Women and children often will look down or away when conversing with men or with elders.
• Direct eye contact is not viewed as aggressive. In rural areas, visitors will find eye contact will not be as common as in Kigali . With government officials, this is expected.

Views of Time
• In most situations, Rwandans do not tend to be overly concerned with being punctual. People are expected to arrive within the first hour or two after the appointed time.
• Punctuality tends to be more valued in business situations, but deadlines are often not met.
• Generally speaking, people will give their time freely and are happy to accommodate unscheduled visits regardless of other plans.
• Time is fluid in this culture, but it also depends on the person with whom you are meeting. Government officials, even in rural areas, will almost always be on time. The government has emphasized punctuality as one of their main values.
• In interpersonal relationships, it is common for Rwandans to be 30 minutes to an hour late; flexibility is encouraged. Often, Rwandans expect foreigners to be on time, even if they are not.
• Rwandans tend to greet all friends and acquaintances that they pass, and exchange niceties; this can often slow them down to an appointment. They like to take their time; relationship building is very important in this culture, which is particularly understandable, given their divisive history.

Gender issues:
• Rwanda is going through a transition when it comes to gender roles; however, it is still a male dominant society. Over the past several years, women have made dramatic gains in equality. In rural areas, women continue their traditional roles in raising children, preparing meals, and working in the fields. However, in Kigali, it is common to see women at all levels in business and government, and there are policewomen as well.
• In most rural areas women will most likely be housewives. They will be expected to cook, clean, do they laundry and take care of the children, as well as work their land.
• In urban settings it is more likely to find women who work and have a career. Although opportunities are becoming more varied, salaries and room for growth tend to be limited.
• Women have recently received the right to own land.
• The Rwandan Parliament boasts the greatest percentage of women of any parliament in the world. Foreign women are at no particular disadvantage in .
• Activities that tend to be unacceptable for women surround issues of drinking; there is a stigma against women who go to bars (in areas outside of Kigali ).

Gestures
• When gesturing or beckoning for someone to come, you should face your palm downwards and make a scratching motion with the fingers.
• It is rude to point at people, as pointing is reserved for dogs, so usually the whole hand/arm is used.
• Rwandan gestures tend to be the same as mainstream American and French gestures. To beckon someone (as in a restaurant), the formal call is “Bwana” (pronounced “Bgana,” not the Swahili “Bwana”), and informally, Rwandans will hiss repeatedly. Hissing is the way to call moto-taxis and taxi-cars.

Taboos
• Avoid asking about someone’s ethnicity or referring to someone as Hutu or Tutsi.
• Rwanda is a delicate country whose deep wounds are healing. The government is working hard to ensure that Rwandans heal together, so as to avoid another conflict in the future. To do so, they have emphasized the idea that ethnicity no longer exists, that everyone is simply Rwandan. As a result, it is illegal to discuss ethnic groups in outside sanctioned discussions, such as those held during Genocide Memorial Week every April. Otherwise, such conversations could be perceived as promoting “genocide ideology,” which is a punishable offense.
• Almost every Rwandan has a story related to the 1994 genocide. The trauma was so severe that it is difficult for many to cope. As a result, it is improper to ask people what happened to them; rather, once Rwandans build a relationship with foreigners (or if they feel comfortable talking about it), they will open up.
• Dress appropriately. People in Kigali take pride in their appearance, and tend to dress up. Visitors should make an effort to dress well in the capital (i.e. no safari wear). Do not wear shorts—shorts are only worn by Rwandan schoolboys.
• While it is rare for Rwandan women in rural areas to wear pants, it is perfectly acceptable for foreign women to wear pants in the field and in Kigali . When outside the capital, it is acceptable to wear more rugged clothing (with the exception of shorts).

Law and Order
• Penalties for the possession, use or trafficking of illegal drugs are severe and convicted offenders can expect lengthy prison sentences and heavy fines. This is an extremely serious offense.
• Photographing government buildings is prohibited.
• The legal drinking age is 18, but it is not enforced, and younger people are served. The smoking age is also 18. It is not enforced, either.
It’s a good idea to learn some terms in Kinyarwanda. A simple “Mwaramutse” in the morning (or “Mwiriwe” in the afternoon) will make people smile and open up to you. Rwandans enjoy meeting foreigners who make an effort to learn their language and culture, both of which are marvelous. Learning even a little will go a long way with them.

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