I can’t really articulate well what it is without examples so here goes… But before examples, I need to tell you that Rwanda is quite safe and it is a beautiful country. Kenya is also incredible. Check out these photos I took in my time in Rwanda.
So, to my experiences with the culture… My mother drove me from Kigali to Gisenyi to see Lake Kivu, just the two of us. It is about a three-hour drive. On the way there, toilet stops were not an issue. Unfortunately, they were on the way back. For my mother and I, this isn’t usually an issue. We just stop, find a bush and do a good old squat. But for some reason, every time we thought we’d found a personless space, someone popped up; women planting flowers, a boy walking his cow, some children playing.
Eventually, I decided to get out at a small town and ask for a toilet. Sadly, I don’t speak Kinyarwanda so I just went into a shop and asked ‘toilet?’ A woman told me to follow her. I usually don’t do this, but I trusted my gut and we were out in the open. She lead me to a place about 10 meters away from the shop she was minding, saying something to the owner of the house/shop (I’m still not sure) about how I wanted to use the toilet. I know because she used the word ‘muzungu’, which is a word for fair skinned people, but also is often just used for any non-Africans (not derogatory). So she took me through a room full of people eating who all greet me and smiled. I was led to the back where there was a man washing clothes and then a small hut, which was a wooden cubicle squat toilet.
I checked I was aiming right and used it with no problems. The man washing the clothes practised some English with me, I left, thanking everyone, in particular the woman who’d led me there and then they thanked me back. It is amazing how when you say ‘thank you’, they respond ‘thank you’, thanking you for thanking them. I found it endearing.
The rest of the way back was hassle free, ie. me not having to awkwardly shuffle in my chair, thanks to the kindness of some strangers.
Another incident of impromptu kindness we had in Kenya when I was much younger. My mother, cousins and brother had been driven to Lake Magadi by a nice driver. On the way back, our car broke down. It would take a few hours for someone to come and pick us up and we were not in a good spot on the road. My mother never lets us be in a predicament too long and the next thing I knew she’d waved down a bus and we were riding back to Nairobi with a bunch of strangers. It was a school bus. The teachers kindly let us on, asking us where in Nairobi they could drop us off. The students eagerly chatted with my cousins and I, asking us about school in England, surprised to hear that our primary school ended at age 11 rather than age 14. I honestly don’t remember much about that experience, it was some time ago, but I remember being stunned at their kindness, their relaxed openness and how readily they shared food, drink, stories and wide smiles.
‘What happened to the car?’, you ask, The driver waited for a mechanic to come to him and then drove the car home at night, all so that us children could be in bed at a decent hour.
No doubt there are people who take advantage of you everywhere you go. But I feel many places in African countries have a sense of giving that many cultures in their modern forms have lost sight of, too afraid of trusting strangers and motives. (Of course this fear is often justified, but it is sad we have to have it.)
My mother often enjoys telling people about cultures in Africa before colonisation. Did you know that there was no direct word for ‘orphan’ in many native African languages until colonists came with the concept of charity? Just imagine a society where the word orphan and charity doesn’t exist, because it is the norm. Orphans are absorbed in the community and charity is so present in collective responsibility of community that charity as an act seems contrived. Another fact that I learned that astounded me was that in Rwanda’s culture one of the measures of whether you were a true man was whether you could give your wife an orgasm. It was surmised in local legends that it was what kept the rivers flowing and without the female orgasm and its sacred waters drought is imminent. No factual base of course, but its a window into a disappearing value system. Much of Africa did not possess written script and many of its languages are now written in roman letters. However, on top of having passed much knowledge down through spoken word, they were certainly ahead in the simple yet very noble concept of giving, receiving and care for others.
I urge you to experience Africa. You may encounter ten people who try to cheat you or rip you off but for every ten of them, you meet one with the hospitality I’ve just described and you will be floored! The safety, caution and fear of strangers that modern day living teaches, of course, has its reasons, but I think we’d all be in a better place if we connected with strangers with simple kindness and gestures of giving and receiving.