Try to pick up the local language - English is only the third.
Volunteering in a foreign country is a truly amazing experience. But no matter how excited you might be about what awaits you, leaving your home country for foreign soil can be an intimidating and stressful situation. You will meet all kinds of new people. You may have to deal with a major language barrier. Customs will not be what you are used to. Accommodations might be less modern than the ones you have at your home. All of these things are especially true when volunteering somewhere as unfamiliar as Kigali, Rwanda. But if you make the right preparations, your visit to Kigali will be all you imagined and more.
Kigali is not only the capital of Rwanda, but also its most populated city. It is a truly beautiful place that serves as the country's cultural and economic hub. Though Rwanda does have a checkered past, it is now considered a stable and safe place to visit, featuring amongst other sights amazingly diverse plant and animal life.
When my father and I decided to volunteer in Kigali, we wanted to both help the people and explore their traditions. Here are some helpful tips on how to immerse yourself in the culture, so you can get the most out of your Kigali experience.
Prepare Before You Arrive
Make sure to do your research before you travel, so you can get to Rwanda as prepared as you can possibly be. This will allow you to start out on the right foot, which will help you keep a positive attitude about your experience. Double check that all of your volunteer paperwork are in order and that your passport will remain valid up to six months after your return. See your doctor to ensure that your immunizations are all up to date. Go over your travel plans in advance. Research the conditions and temperature, so you can pack the right array of clothing and footwear. Basically, do everything in your power to ensure that all your travels go as smoothly as possible.
Break Down the Language Barrier
Whenever you travel to a country where they speak a different language, you will have to deal with the barrier that this causes. Rwanda is no different. The main languages spoken there are Kinyarwanda, French, and some English. But while the Rwandan people may speak a bit of English, it is certainly not the English you are probably used to. Make sure to talk slowly and try to listen very carefully. Body language and hand gestures will help a lot too.
Learning about a culture is half the fun of volunteering!
You may find communication a bit tough at first, but always do your best to remain patient. Show the people that you really want to make an effort to exchange dialogue and ideas with them. This will go a long way toward the Rwandan people accepting you, which will allow you to more easily mingle with them and learn about their culture.
Respect the Societal Differences
Even though Rwanda has come a long way in the past 15 years, it is still a very conservative society. You should do your best to respect the customs of the Rwandan people as much as possible. Some of the differences you will run across include:
- The people dress very modestly. This is especially true of the women. Avoid shorts, tight skirts, and low-cut tops.
- Public displays of affection and emotion are non-existent.
- The people do not eat in any public places other than restaurants.
- Smoking in public is not illegal, but is definitely frowned upon.
- Do not be a "loud American." This will definitely get you noticed, and not in a positive way. The reason for this is that the Rwandan people tend to be very private and calm. They prefer to solve their differences with discussion, rather than argument.
You may disagree with some of these customs, but instead of forcing your beliefs on them, make your best effort to learn about where these beliefs come from and why the Rwandan people live by them. If you respect these societal differences, it will help you to fit in, so you can more easily learn about the Rwandan culture.
Embrace the Culture
You will no doubt run across many cultural differences between the people of your country and the people of Rwanda. In order to get the most out of your experience, you really should embrace these differences as opposed to pushing away from them.
You will find that the food is different than what you're used to. Rwandan staples include: beans, potatoes, bananas, and plantains. They tend to eat less meat. You should try different traditional dishes. Figure out what you like and what you don't. That is all part of the journey.
Music and dance play a very important role in the traditions of the Rwandan people. Such forms of expression are a huge part of their society, and are often used to celebrate their rich history. If you're lucky, you may get a chance to see some of this in action.
If you run across anything in Rwandan culture that interests you, feel free to discuss it with the local people. Show them that you are interested. Try your best to learn. But remember, you are a guest in their country, so make sure to always be as respectful as possible.
Photos courtesy of The CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture and The Dilly Lama.