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just beneath the surface

Tomorrow marks the beginning of our fourth month in Rwanda – an excellent milestone to step back and offer a few reflections on our new temporary home. Unlike our first two Foreign Service postings, Kigali was a bit of a known quantity. We had both visited Rwanda previously and knew to a certain, limited extent what we were getting into. Of course, as anyone who has spent a decent amount of time here will attest, the longer you live in Rwanda the more you realize how little you really know.


S’s first experience on the African continent was a semester of study abroad in Ghana and the opportunities to travel around West Africa that it afforded. Unreserved, voluble, and boisterous, the people she encountered during her six months in Accra bore little resemblance to the denizens of Kigali, where S spent three months in 2010. Even Kenya – a fellow East African Community nation where we served for two years – seems more different from Rwanda than it is alike.

We’re not talking about surface differences – Rwanda is a small, hilly, land-locked, densely populated country whereas Kenya is sprawling by comparison and encompasses a variety of habitats, from its lush central highlands to its arid northern frontier and beautiful coastline. We’re talking about the subtle differences one discovers just beneath the surface.

Language is a good first point of departure. In Kenya, English was the language of government and business, and Swahili the nation’s unifying national tongue, but in a country with 42 distinct ethnic groups – each one with its own language and culture – clear communication was not always a given. Outside the big cities, people learned to speak their tribal language first, then Swahili, and English last of all. D recalls one meeting he had with about twenty people where only two knew English, about half a dozen spoke Swahili, and the rest could only communicate in their own languages. D’s Swahili was good enough to understand about half of the proceedings, but even if it had been flawless, it wouldn’t have mattered much. There were four or five languages flying around the room all at once, requiring constant multi-level interpretation.

Rwandans can also trace back their ancestry to distinct clans and ethnic groups, but the country’s population is considerably more homogenous. With the recent addition of Swahili, the country now has four official languages – everyone speaks Kinyarwanda and either French or English, depending on whether they were educated under the old French system or, as is the case with the younger generation, under the more recently adopted English curriculum. All Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, so the inter-community communication challenges present in Kenya do not manifest themselves here.

Kinyarwanda is considerably more difficult than Swahili and as we know only a handful of words, clear communication is still not a given for us, even though we speak both French and English. Well-educated Rwandans tend to speak both flawlessly but many others mix Rs and Ls, making their French difficult to understand for us, non-native French speakers. Not infrequently, when asked their preference, the response we get is, “English. I try,” which is usually a sign of a challenging conversation ahead.

There is, of course, a deeper, more fundamental challenge to our attempts at bridging the cross-cultural communication gap. In other countries where we’ve lived it usually didn’t take too long to figure out where one stood with one’s interlocutors. In South America, for example, people are famously frank and willing to share their unfiltered opinions – to the point that foreigners who are unaccustomed to such candor sometimes get their feelings hurt.


Rwanda hews towards the opposite extreme. Rwandans are incredibly reserved and soft-spoken. This is both literally true – oftentimes people speak in a near whisper that we find ourselves straining to hear – and also reflective of a cultural history that emphasizes community over the individual. It didn’t take long for us to learn that we don’t really know where we stand with people here, and the rest of our tour might still be insufficient to fully answer that question.


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