Rwanda is a small landlocked country in Central East Africa, and is often referred to as the heart of Africa. Rwanda’s population is estimated at roughly 12 million, making it one of the most densely populated countries in Africa.
Rwanda is green, lush and beautiful. It is nicknamed the Land of a Thousand Hills. The climate is moderate all year round (75-90 degrees during the day, in the 60s at night) because of its location just a few degrees from the equator. Rwanda has two main rainy seasons (March to April and September to December). The elevation averages 5,000 feet above sea level.
The national languages of Rwanda are Kinyarwanda, English, Swahili, and French. Kinyarwanda is spoken by all local residents. All education is moving toward instruction in English.
If you are curious to read more about Rwanda on a macro level, please read more from the CIA’s website.
Rwanda had a very turbulent history during the 20th century. Prior to this time, the three people groups of Rwanda (the Hutu, Twa and Tutsi) lived together in relative peace. At the start of the 1900’s the country was occupied by Germany. Due to the 1916 League of Nations Mandate, the nation of Rwanda was given to Belgium. Belgium had colonial authority until 1962, after a referendum was passed to establish Rwanda as an independent republic. There are many relational complexities between a colonizer and a colonized country. We will not attempt to explore those depths here. However, it is important to know that Belgian support of the Tutsi people created an ethnic divide between the Tutsi and Hutu people over the span of many decades.
Since 1962, Rwanda has seen much unrest and war. Ethnic attacks were carried out against the Tutsi people between the 1960’s and 1994. In 1994, the conflict escalated to a breaking point and full-scale genocide broke out. Rwanda experienced its darkest period when the genocide claimed more than 800,000 lives in just 90 days. Those who lived through this horror say it was as though the devil himself entered the country. On July 4th, 1994 the conflict formally ended. There would be many more years of unrest, migration, and rebuilding. It is worth noting post-1994 conflicts were not self-contained in Rwanda. They also involved the border countries of Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, primarily because of how many men and women crossed the borders. Today cross-country relations can still be affected by tensions from this time.
Before traveling to Rwanda, consider reading a book or watching a movie to learn more.
Ever since this horrific period, the nation has been on a path to rebuild, reconcile, and forgive. The scars of genocide and poverty run deep so there is still much work to do. The current government has a big agenda with goals to drastically improve infrastructure, education, healthcare, technology and much more. Rwanda’s future looks very bright and the international community is taking notice. As of 2015, Rwanda had one of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world.
The government, led by President Paul Kagame, is democratically elected. His leadership has brought vision, growth and stability to the region since the late 1990’s. President Kagame’s 3rd elected term began in August 2017. Each presidential term lasts seven years. Originally the constitution allowed for two consecutive elected terms. As of December 2015, the Rwandan parliament ratified the constitution allowing President Kagame to run for three additional terms. If reelected consistently, President Kagame could hold the seat until 2034.
Rwandans culture is very kind and hospitable, despite the immense suffering in the 20th century. You will observe Rwandans greet one other with a hug and a handshake. It is not uncommon to see two men or two women walking down the road holding hands as an expression of friendship. It is a sign of respect to grasp your right forearm with your left hand as you shake hands with someone.
Rwandan culture is also very proud and dignified. You may notice individual’s clothing reflect these values. They take pride in what they wear when leaving the house. Men are usually seen wearing slacks and a button-up shirt. Women in the city wear Western-style clothing, but dress more traditional in the villages by donning a long skirt called a pagne. There is rich tradition of beautiful, vibrant fabrics that you will see all over the country.
Music and dance are a big part of East African culture. Rwandans have traditional dances and instruments that you may have the pleasure of seeing and hearing.
You may notice while in country Rwandans, especially children, laughing or giggling around Western travelers. Please do not be offended by this, laughing or giggling may be a sign of nervousness or excitement around foreigners.
Although the government leaders are elected, Rwanda’s democracy looks different than in the U.S. – do not expect the systems to function the same. Additionally, while the nation has made incredible strides politically, they do not have free speech like we have in America. Rwandans cannot always freely comment on politics or their personal opinions of leaders. Out of respect, please avoid asking about the political climate in Rwanda.
Culturally, Rwandans do not say no to elders or visitors. Instead of telling you “no” or “there is a better way,” they will disengage, pull back, or disregard your advice. This is a tactic to avoid conflict and avoid leaving you disappointed. Rwandans often say yes by simply raising both of their eyebrows or a giving a slight nod.
Cross-cultural author David Livermore states, “Our level of interest in connecting with the culture as a whole will directly shape how well we do our work in subtle but profound ways.”
At Africa New Life we too, believe that taking the time to engage and respect Rwandan Christian values and attitudes will make a tremendous impact on you and the people you interact with throughout the trip. Truly one of the greatest benefits to traveling the world is the chance to see life through the lens of people in another culture.
While you are in Rwanda, it is important to have a good sense of cultural awareness. We are not there to impress our Western culture on Rwandans, but rather to understand and respect their culture and customs. Examples of items that are currently disputed in the Western church, but not commonly discussed in Rwandan Christian culture, are: tattoos, smoking, body piercing, alcohol use, tobacco, R-rated movies, Eastern style exercise (yoga, tai-chi or chi-gong), and the LGBTQ community.
Born Again Christians in Rwanda do not drink or smoke. They may be offended if you drink, smoke, or if you talk about it. We ask that you do not order any alcoholic beverages while in Rwanda. We ask you do not smoke. This includes the use of vaping and e-cigarettes. You are representing a Christian organization within the community.
Please do not discuss the practice of, debate reasons for/against, or self identify as a member of the LGBTQ community while in Rwanda. Discussing sexuality is taboo in African culture. We ask this not to suppress any individual, but rather to protect members of the LGTBQ community from receiving significant negative feedback.
If you have a tattoo that is prominently displayed, be prepared to answer questions about it. If the image is not appropriate, please cover it up.
If you practice yoga, tai-chi, etc. while in Rwanda, please refer to it simply as exercise. The connotation of these activities and terms is spiritual rather than physical.
Photos and Social Media
While traveling in Rwanda, you will want to capture photos. However, it is far more important to be present in Rwanda, than behind the camera. Use discretion when to photograph an event and when to participate. In general, children like to be photographed and may crowd for a photo. Always, out of courtesy, do not take photographs of people without asking them first.
Africa New Life’s photographer, Esther Havens, wrote a piece exploring how photos can honor rather than belittle the subject. Please read HERE. After reading, consider how the photos you take and your social media posts represent Rwanda. Consider not posting a photo unless you know the subject’s name and story, and have their permission.
It is important while visiting Rwanda to show respect to the culture and history with regard to social media. Tweeting or posting photos from genocide memorial sites is not allowed. Please do not take photographs at any of the genocide memorials unless given permission by the men and women working there.
Visitors may not take pictures of police or military, nor may they take photographs inside or around the airport or government buildings. If someone does take a picture, the police or a soldier has the right to take your camera away.
Rwanda has worked hard to respectfully remember, yet move forward from the 1994 genocide. But remember, nearly everyone you will meet was affected by the conflict; many lost family members and friends. Please do not ask people what ethnicity they are. The nation is working very hard to unify all members under the title of Rwandan, instead of using former tribe identities.
Additionally, do not ask people about the genocide, their experience, or their personal story. As you can imagine, many people would not feel comfortable sharing such an intimate part of their life with a stranger. If someone does share their story with you, don’t ask them to repeat it to someone else and don’t re-tell their experience to someone else. Simply be honored to hear their story.