Rwanda, with its vibrant culture, rich history, and diverse landscape, is the perfect place for a vacation. Tourists flock to the country to hike with endangered mountain gorillas, visit towering volcanoes, and laze by the effervescent Lake Kivu. In order to have the best trip possible, and not flout local custom, check out our guide to the eleven things tourists should never do in Rwanda.
Rwanda is incredibly clean. Unlike many of its East African neighbors, litter is rarely found on the streets, and huge country-wide efforts are made to promote environmental activism, programming, and awareness. The Rwandan government, in order to curb landfills and promote sustainable living, banned plastic bags country-wide. Don’t be that tourist who tries to sneak one in – not only will it likely be confiscated at the airport, but you’ll also be going against one of the coolest and impactful environmental laws on the continent.
To be fair, a lot of people in Rwanda do speak English. Rwanda is an incredible multicultural and multilingual country, with Kinyarwanda, French, and English spoken widely. However, English is not as common outside of larger cities, so don’t assume that the local shopkeeper in a rural town far outside of Kigali will be fluent in English, and then get frustrated when they are not.
Rwanda has a lot to offer the discerning traveler on the food front. Homemade pizzas, decadent ice cream, fresh sushi, and warming French food is available all over Kigali. However, while traveling to Rwanda, spend some time enjoying local specialties. Brochettes (grilled meat or fish on a stick), akabenz (roasted and marinated pork), and different vegetable and potato dishes can be found across the country and, besides being very tasty, will only add to the traveling experience.
Many tourists, when visiting Rwanda’s capital, only spend time visiting a few specific neighborhoods: Kimihurura, Kiyovu, and Kacyiru. These neighborhoods are delightful, and where many of the big hotels, best restaurants, and cutest stores in the city are located. However, they are also where most expats in Kigali live, and aren’t demonstrative of the whole city. Get outside the tourist bubble and explore the giant market in Kimironko, the lively streets of Nyamirambo, and the colorful murals of Kimisagara. If short on time, check out Go Kigali – their day tours around the city take guests to hidden gems and neighborhoods rarely visited by tourists.
Take photos of the gorillas you track, the food you eat, and the scenery you admire, but don’t take pictures of Rwandans – both adults and children – without asking for permission first. Many people will find it offensive to have random tourists take uninvited photographs, and some might ask for money in exchange.
Yes, Rwanda is located on the continent of Africa. However, tourists come to Rwanda and talk about how great traveling in “Africa” truly is, instead of focusing on Rwanda itself. Rwanda is its own place – also Africa is not a country. Rolling hills, rows of volcanoes, colorful markets, and idyllic lakes make Rwanda one of the most beautiful and unique countries on earth. And Rwandan customs, culture, and historical context are specific to the country itself.
Eating in public, even if it’s a cookie, an apple, or energy bar, is frowned upon in Rwanda. Tourists might be able to get away with it a bit more in Kigali, but outside of the city it would be considered fairly disrespectful. Instead, eat meals in the privacy of a restaurant or a hotel room.
There are some stunning chain hotels in Rwanda. The recently opened Marriott, Raddison Blu, Park Inn, and Serena in Kigali all vie for tourist attention, while locally owned hotels and guesthouses suffer. Spend some time out of the big chain hotels, and visit equally beautiful Rwandan-owned businesses.
Don’t believe what you’ve seen on television or in the news; Rwanda is not a homogeneous nation of poor, uneducated, and traumatized people in need of Western aid. The country is vibrant, diverse, and on the move. While traveling, be aware of your own privilege, but also don’t assume that Western connotations of wealth, happiness, and development are the same everywhere.
The 1994 Rwandan Genocide was an undeniably tragic event. Too many lives were lost, and too many families were torn apart. However, the country has worked incredibly hard to move beyond the genocide, and casual and continual conversations about the events of April 1994 are discouraged. Visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial to learn more, and then look towards Rwanda’s exciting future instead of limiting your perceptions of the country to its past.
Unless you’re on a safari in Akagera National Park or tracking mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, put those zip-off pants and safari hats to rest. Many tourists walk around Kigali clothed in stereotypical safari gear, even at the city’s fanciest restaurants and most popular bars. Break out your evening wear, and remember that Kigali is quickly becoming a cosmopolitan city.