Visiting is a fundamental aspect of Rwandan culture. I often avoid visiting, not because I tremendously dislike drinking overly-sweet tea while watching blaring music videos, but because of a slight cross-cultural barrier I consistently struggle to overcome.
To visit in Rwanda means to simply show up.
Unannounced, sometimes uninvited. You don’t set a date and time or call beforehand to confirm. You just go.
This is not my culture.
In the USA, visiting is pre-arranged. Planned in advance, marked on the calendar. It often happens not at your home but at some cooperatively chosen location. And on the rare occasion things are left vague or done last-minute, you always call ahead to confirm someone is home, dressed, and available.
Time after time, my friends have invited me to visit.
‘When?’ I always ask.
‘Anytime,’ the consistently reply.
Some live far away. Some travel on weekends or work odd hours. Some are men who I wouldn’t want to go visit unless I knew their wife was home.
So I wait. I wait for specifics. A day, a time, even directions on how to find their house. I wait.
Except they don’t know I’m waiting.
By their culture, the ball is in my court.
So I see them at the market or at work or in the canteen and they ask, ‘Why haven’t you come to visit me? I’m waiting for you.’
So now we’re both waiting.
I finally got over my fears long enough to visit the Catholic priests. After they’d chastised me multiple times, I realized this was one part of my culture I needed to let go. It helped that the priests live nearby and their home and office are one. They’re priests, so they receive visitors all the time. Nonetheless, it took me several attempts – in which I planned to go but chickened out – before I finally knocked on their door.
I’ve made small steps in my visiting since then, but it still feels very improper to simply show up at a person’s house.
So recently, when my friend Modeste asked why I still hadn’t come to visit him and his wife, I took action.
‘I’m ready,’ I told Modeste, whose permanent home is an hour away. ‘I’m going to Kigali just now, but will return on Sunday and will pass by your village.’
‘Good, you will come!’ Modeste said.
That was it. A start but still a bit vague for my tastes. I knew the name of the village but had no clue where his house was. And I could only assume that his reply meant he and his wife would actually be home on Sunday. An additional dilemma was that due to the distance and timing, my visit would likely have to extend overnight. Was that acceptable?
This was going to be a big leap for me.
Sunday morning came and I was prepared to leave Kigali. I was still uncertain about this whole visiting thing. Would they be there? Would there be a place for me to sleep? Would I even be able to find their home in a village I’d never before seen?
Then my phone vibrated with an SMS from Modeste:
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR PROMISE?
Okay, it’s on.
I called him to inform him of my schedule and ask the moto price to the village. I finished my bus ride, flagged a moto, negotiated the correct price and was off…still not knowing precisely where I was going.
Once we left the main road and began winding up the mountain toward the village, I was completely lost.
Then it began to rain.
We came to the second string of storefronts just as the mist turned to a downpour and I told the driver to stop. We took cover in a small store and I called Modeste. I had no idea if we’d reached his village or passed it or were anywhere near it at all.
Turns out, we’d just passed his street.
The rain lightened, Modeste showed up with an umbrella and we slipped and slid down the road, past the curious villagers staring at the new muzungu in town, and reached the house just as the storm let loose again.
Alice greeted us at the door with flip flops and ushered me to a private bedroom to change out of my rain-drenched clothes. I had made it. I was officially a visitor.
We all chatted for a bit, then Alice disappeared to kill a chicken and Modeste put on christian music videos with English subtitles that we sang along to like karaoke. His twin brother came by to greet me, then we watched a Tanzanian film called, “The Best Wife” while we ate a delicious meal.
If I thought it was going to be awkward, this whole visiting thing, I was wrong. I drifted off under my mosquito net, in my friends’ home, knowing I was welcome and warmly received.
I woke early in the morning, not knowing the family routine, and caught Alice and the umukozi unprepared. I felt bad that they had to rush to light the fire and heat water for my bath. Modeste slept in and I packed up my belongings while the women did womanly things – like prepare breakfast. Modeste rolled out of bed and the two of us drank our morning tea and ate eggs and bread laid out by his wife.
Then we all set off. They walked me through town, showing me the village and the school and the health center where Alice works. It was a half hour back to the main road where we waited on the first of the day’s buses to rumble to a stop. We all boarded and sat in a row, the other passengers tittering at the muzungu with her Rwandan friends, out for a morning journey. The tittered even more when Modeste and Alice disembarked without me at the District capital to take care of some paperwork.
I continued alone, but with a happy heart. I had succeeded wonderfully at this whole visiting thing, I thought.
Now if I can just get the courage to do it again.