Some tidbits I learned in Rwanda (posted June 2008 from our first trip to Rwanda)

Rwanda is the most densely populated African country.  Though there are some relatively flat lands, most of it is hilly and mountainous.  We stayed in a metropolitan area of the capital city, Kigali.  However, in Kigali, which is built on several mountains clumped together, one only needs to travel a short distance to be in a rural area.  In fact, we might call it frontier land.  Once outside the city, it is all rural, completely undeveloped except for the highway. 
 
I never felt overwhelmed with the lack of development.  In fact, I found I was more surprised with how developed some areas were.  What I did notice was that it did not matter where we went, city or hinterlands, there were always lots of people.  Here in Washington State, there are many areas I have traveled where I might go for miles and miles without seeing another human being, or even any sign of human life.  But in Rwanda, you do not get away from people.  They are always there.  There is no privacy.  There is no aloneness. 
(Mother and infant catching a ride on a "moto.")
 
Most Rwandans do not have the money to afford transportation of any kind.  So, most people walk.  And walk.  And walk.  Some have bicycles.  The further away from the city we would get, the fewer motor vehicles we would see.  When we would see no motor vehicles, then we would see bicycles being used as taxis.  Keep on going, and pretty soon even the bicycles would disappear. 
 (Licensed taxi driver, evidenced by the vest he wore.  Notice the backseat where the rider sits.)(Here is his sign, which includes a prayer for safety.)
 
All of this is to say that I began noticing how cultures can develop because of uncontrollable factors.  Climate, air and water quality, population density, animal and plant diversity, weather . . .   All these have an impact on the development of culture. 
 
The lowest altitude in Rwanda is about the same altitude as Snoqualmie Pass, 3000 feet above sea level.  Though the temperature never gets hot like it does in eastern Washington, it does get humid in Rwanda. 
 
It began to make sense to me why people walked so slowly.  Or why they did not organize into clear lines or wait their turn in the markets.  Why they were shy.  Or why they barely obeyed the rules of the road.  Why everyone was so quiet (even babies rarely cried).  Or why it was normal for friends to hold hands or put their arms around each other. 
(A common scene:  friends.)
 
Somehow, I had thought that culture develops mostly through the influence of social norming, rules, religion, clan or family structure.  But really, I think there are natural influences on culture, which then influences social structures, governments, religious practices, etc. 
 
A few examples from Rwanda . . .  In Rwanda, motor vehicles have the right of way.  Though drivers are expected to be careful of pedestrians, it is actually the legal responsibility of pedestrians to stay out of the way of cars.  One time, a bus hit Sara, one of our team members.  Though she sustained no injuries, she was bothered by all the people who were laughing when it happened.  The bus driver did not intentionally hit her, but there appeared to be no concern for Sara’s welfare either.  Sounds backwards to us.  But in Rwanda, everybody moves slowly.  Therefore, the assumption is that people move fast only when it is absolutely imperitive.  People go to the front of the line when they really need to.  If I were to "take cuts" in a line, the assumption would be that my needs outweighed the needs of the others waiting.  Therefore, it is assumed that people who ride the bus need to get where they are going pretty badly or else they would have walked.  Give them the right of way, they obviously need it more than anyone else. 
 
In Rwanda, everyone is quiet.  But of course, they need to be.  If they were as loud as we are, one would not be able to think.  It would be too noisy, with all those people everywhere making noise.  I wonder if our society has more chronic hearing loss than we realize.  In Rwanda, public speakers do not raise their voices to accommodate the large crowds and they rarely use microphones, and still, the Rwandans can hear what is being said.  In a country where you can never be alone, it’s nice to know that you can at least expect peaceful quiet.  In the USA, from the moment we are born, we are expected to be noisy.  We say it shows strength.
 
I am proud, to be honest, that I did not become agitated.  Mostly, I found humor in the cultural differences.  I also looked for and found the beauty in Rwandan culture.  TIA:  this is Africa.  How can one blame anyone for how other cultures develop?  No one person can control that.  I could tell that some of our group would occasionally get annoyed at things related to cultural differences. 
 
I understand what Adie, our team therapist said . . .  Some people become expats because they like being the center of attention.  In Rwanda, every white person is an entertainer just by virtue of existence among very dark-skinned people.
 
With love to you all,
Christopher
 
 
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