Rwanda can in many ways be considered an atypical country in Africa and this is no different when you look at the social interactions between the people here. Whereas in many of the surrounding countries you will instantly get approached by random people, whether it be for good or less genuine intentions, in Rwanda you can find people to be much more on their own. They appear to be somewhat introvert and it is uncommon to be bothered on the street by people you don’t know, safe for the few street vendors (mostly selling airtime). One might think that people here are perhaps more accustomed to ‘muzungus’ (“white people”), but if you see how young children react to your presence and appearance, it can be concluded that the reason must lie elsewhere. Logically you think of the countries darkest page in history to see how perhaps social dynamics at that time have induced their behavior of today. This premise might be a bit too exhaustive to research deeper but I would like to highlight one aspect which I believe can contribute to this perceived social reticence.
It was when I visited Nairobi some weeks ago, that I noticed something is very different here. I didn’t notice it as first but all of a sudden it struck me. I was standing at the border of the immense city park, where people of all sorts had gathered. Kids were playing football, young women were having a chat on the grass and elder men were reading their newspaper. Even animation was provided for the smallest visitors; horse-riding, an ice-cream shop, a ‘tattoo’ parlor for kids and so on. I continued my walk, heading towards the center, and there I arrived at city square, where benches were many (and all occupied) and again some form of social interaction occurred.
Where is Kigali’s central park?? Where is the city square? Somehow these things do not exist in Kigali and I personally think it is unfortunate. It is hard to say that this was a planned policy decision or just a result of the high population pressure and its lack of space for the roughly 10 million inhabitants in Rwanda. Try to find a place in Rwanda outside the national parks where you can be out of sight of other people for half an hour. I assure you it is a difficult challenge.
Nevertheless I came to think that this phenomenon interacts with the way people behave socially, without stating in which way the correlation occurs. As an expat living here this also makes it harder to meet locals. Without public spaces used by everyone, you have to make a deliberate decision to go into a social space such as a bar or nightclub. By the fact of this being a deliberate decision you wage up options and intuitively as an expat you will choose for the more up class places which in turn delimitates your social realm. Sure you will meet Rwandans, some will be happy to talk to you and even to befriend you, but are these the same Rwandans you meet in the park or on a random bench? In a place where a drink is about the daily wage of an average Rwandan I highly doubt it…
If you then consider the fact that we mostly work at NGO’s or at government institutions and that we live in the areas considered to be safe enough for us, you have to ask yourself, where do we meet the very Rwandese people that we are trying to help? Nevertheless these very same boundaries between social groups can be perceived in many ways. For a businessman travelling often to countries like Uganda, Tanzania and so on it will most likely be seen as a positive thing to be able to walk free everywhere without constant hassle of the people in his proximity. He will feel safer and more comfortable in Kigali and will report back to his superiors with the claim that it is an example for East Africa, a beacon of (western) progress in a difficult region. Secondly however, for aid workers it can be seen as a negative thing. If the interaction between you and your target group of the population seldom occurs, it makes it also harder to identify this target, to put a face to the beneficiary.
In effect this can make your job much more abstract and your incentives harder to maintain. After all people here seem to be doing fine and it appears as if your presence here is not so highly valued after all. Both sides of perception have their flaws off course, but in the end, don’t we all want to have a central park to sit in during a sunny weekend? For Kigali to further improve its image, in my opinion, this should be one of its very first considerations.
Merijn De Smet