Rwanda – culture and customs

The main languages spoken in the Rwandan republic are Kinyarwanda, English, French (all official) and Swahili. It is the most densely populated country on the African mainland and one of the world’s poorest countries. The vast majority of people are Christians and a few percent are Muslims (many mix elements of African religion with Christianity or Islam). The major ethnic groups are Hutu (85-90%), Tutsi (10-15%) and Twa (1%). Please avoid asking your visitor which ethnic group they belong to due to past history. Over 90% of people work in subsistence agriculture and live in rural areas. Living conditions vary immensely between social classes and urban and rural settings. The majority of Rwandans don’t have indoor plumbing, electricity or running water.

Rwanda and Burundi share a very similar culture and were administrated as a single entity known as Ruanda-Urundi until their independence in 1962. During colonial rule (first Germany, later Belgium) a rigid system of social stratification emerged in both countries that had violent repercussions to the present day. The ongoing conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi is a direct result of the way Rwanda was governed under colonialism. For a long time the small Tutsi elite was treated (due to their pre-colonial standard as monarchs) as superior to the Hutu, which fostered resentment among the major ethnic group. When the Tutsi sought independence from Belgium in the 1950s the colonial power changed their direction and favoured the Hutu. This shifting of powers resulted in recurring ethnic violence on a horrendous scale. Since 1962 over a million people were killed and many more became displaced.

The most pressing social problem affecting the country today is ethnic conflict. The present government has pledged its commitment to a non-ethnic society (that everyone is simply Rwandan) but growing economic disparities between sectors of Rwandan society compound the problem of ethnic division.


Greetings are a central part of social etiquette. In rural areas it is important to greet everyone that passes your way – MWARAMUTSE (in the morning), MWIRIWE (in the afternoon). People shake hands with the right hand. Friends often lay a hand on the others hip while the right hand touches the shoulder. To show respect of social status people hold their right forearm with their left hand while shaking hands. Men often share a touching of the sides of their foreheads, first right than left. Holding hands between people of the same sex is a sign of friendship. When two people of the opposite sex talk there is very little to no touching. When a man is greeting a woman it is best to wait for the women to extend her hand.

Eye contact might be more indirect during a conversation; women and children might look down or away to show respect.

It is best to avoid asking about someone’s ethnicity or making referrals to the civil war. Almost every Rwandan has a story related to the 1994 genocide, a trauma so severe that it is difficult for many to cope with, which is why it is improper to ask people what happened to them. Many lost loved ones. Good topics of conversation include food, sport (soccer, running), Rwanda’s landscape, Australia, etc. Rwandans love a good joke but avoid sarcasm as it might not translate.

In many situations people are flexible with appointed times, they don’t tend to be overly punctual. This is different in business situations where punctuality is valued.

Rwandan people have a set of gestures for pointing to and calling people. If you want to point to someone hold out the arm with the palm open and upward. It is considered very rude to point at a person with your index finger. Calling someone to come over is done by extending the arm with the palm turned down and bringing in the fingers towards you, like a scratching motion. Rwandans also have proper ways to give or receive things. Children learn to offer both hands when receiving an object, especially form an adult, which shows respect.


The family unit in Rwanda includes husband, wife and children. People from several related households comprise another kinship. The eldest or most influential male is considered the head of this unit. Marriage is very important as marriage and having a child mark a person’s transition to full adulthood. To get married one has to pay a price for his bride to her father. Ritual occasions such as weddings serve as important recreational functions. Having children is very important, because dying without having them means that no one will honor the deceased’s spirit. Children who receive the privilege of education are expected to financially assist the family later.


Clothing is very European but mostly second hand as not many can afford to buy new clothes. Rwandan people place great importance on looking their best and take great pride in their appearance. Men always wear long pants as shorts are just worn by young children and schoolboys. In most rural areas, women have to wear clothing that covers their legs.


Diet is high in starches and low in protein and fat. Most common foods are various banana types, potatoes and beans (sometimes fish). Meat is eaten very rarely, most common is goat while beef is the most desired but will only be available when someone has sacrificed a bull or cow on a ceremonial occasion. Cattle are valued for prestige value and milk. While food is not always offered to guests, drinks are. It is seen as an insult not to offer a drink where others are drinking. Be aware that it is not accepted for some women to drink alcohol. Bread, coffee and tea are popular for breakfast.