Wacky Happenings You'll Only Witness in Rwanda

Rural Rwanda |  © Nick Fraser / Flickr
Rural Rwanda | © Nick Fraser / Flickr
Photo of Leah Feiger
11 December 2017

Known around the world for mountain-gorilla trekking and impressive luxury accommdation, Rwanda is a country on the rise. In addition to its spectacular scenery, unique indigenous animals, and burgeoning tourism industry, Rwanda is also a land of uniquely hilarious customs and traditions. Read on for a selection of wacky happenings you’ll only observe in Rwanda.

Cow-related compliments

Cows are incredibly important to Rwandans, and they play a vital role in a lot of cultural traditions and ceremonies. Compliments – particularly those that are eager and meaningful – often involve cows. A common one is ‘maso y’inyana’, which translated from Kinyarwanda to English means ‘you have baby cow eyes’. Definitely try this on your next date!

Cows in Rwanda | © VEMP II Rwanda / Flickr

Going to the saloon

Typically, in the US and other countries saloons are often thought of as old-school bars, but in Rwanda saloons always refer to hair salons. It’s not just the pronunciation either – all signs designating salons are written as ‘saloon’.

Saloons in Rwanda | © Adam Jones / Flickr

Telling people they look smart

Looking smart in Rwanda doesn’t necessarily mean one looks intelligent. In fact, looking ‘smart’ actually means looking well-dressed and generally well-put together. Take it as a compliment to your appearance, as opposed to your intellectual prowess.

Street scenes in Rwanda | © Mugisha Don de Dieu / Flickr

Driving hand signals

Traffic in Rwanda, especially on the long and windy roads from Kigali to the countryside, can be pretty dangerous. Luckily, Rwandan drivers have developed a widespread system of hand signals, where drivers signal to others about the presence of police, speed cameras, accidents and more.

Roads in Kigali | © Steve Andersen / Flickr

Holding your right breast for luck

In order to wish them luck, it is common for mothers to tell their children ‘fata igiburyo’, translated from Kinyarwanda to mean ‘I’ll hold my right breast for you’. This designates a close relationship, and is the Rwandan version of ‘break a leg’.

Country-wide plastic bag ban

In 2008, the Rwandan government boldly instated a country-wide plastic bag ban in an effort to promote environmental conservation. Unlike plastic bag bans in other countries around the world, where the purchasing of plastic bags can sometimes only result in a small fee, Rwanda goes the extra mile. Plastic bags are not sold anywhere in the country, and they are actually confiscated upon arrival at the airport.

Rural Rwanda | © Nick Fraser / Flickr

Drinks opened in plain sight

Back in the day, Rwandans feared poisoning and foul play when it came to powerful families and disagreements. To guarantee poisoning didn’t occur, Rwandans made sure their drinks were opened directly in front of them, to ensure no illicit substances had been covertly dropped into their beverages. This tradition has carried over to modern-day Rwanda, where waiters and dinner-party hosts alike still crack open a beer, soda, wine or water under the watchful eyes of guests.

No eating on the street

Eating or drinking in public is considered to be pretty offensive in Rwanda. This is largely because Rwandans really value the act of getting together for a meal and appreciating it, as opposed to grabbing something and chowing down on-the-go.

Zingalo at Sina Gerard | Courtesy of Leah Feiger

Women can’t whistle

In a country where over 60% of the parliament is made up of women, and gender equality statistics are among the highest in the world, it is still considered improper for Rwandan women to do one thing: whistle! A woman whistling in Rwanda – heard on the street, in a bar, or anywhere really – is allegedly quite scandalous. That said, the whistling rule is a tradition generally accepted now only by older generations.

A monthly day of service

Every last Saturday of the month, all Rwandan citizens are required to engage in community service projects, on a day called Umuganda. This could range from building homes to fixing roads, or anything else needed. Fairly unique and unusual, it’s a pretty cool Rwandan initiative that sadly few other countries replicate.

Umuganda in Rwanda | © REMA / Flickr

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