Cultural Differences – Rwanda

Although very small in terms of surface area, Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and is home to an amazing variety of landscapes. In 1994, the country experienced one of the most terrible genocides in the world through the escalation of ethnic-social differences in society. To this day, political, economic or socio-cultural development activities are strongly influenced by the genocide.

However, Rwanda has achieved remarkable economic growth in recent years. It is therefore possible that more and more countries will increasingly enter into economic relations and investments with this small East African state in the future – not only within the framework of development cooperation. It is important to take account the special social characteristics of Rwanda if you want to be able to work with Rwandan businesses.

Culture and cultural differences in Rwanda

As in all cultures, natural, historical, demographic, social, economic and political factors determine the general cultural character of Rwanda. Situated in the tropical highlands of East Africa, Rwanda has a hilly landscape that has earned the country the name “Land of a Thousand Hills”. Mainly shaped by agriculture, Rwanda is increasingly seeking economic development outside the agricultural sector – for example in telecommunications, the IT sector and knowledge management – in line with Singapore’s model.

Densely populated, regional disparities between urban and rural populations have recently increased, changing cultural development and leading to a large internal differentiation between urban and rural populations. This extreme urban-rural demarcation needs population groups that are close to the center and have access to resources, health, education and better jobs.

Driven by globalization, the adoption of Western cultural elements is also accelerating, making it more difficult to understand Rwandan “culture”. As a result, working in rural areas is considerably different from working in Kigali and working together with Rwandans varies greatly depending on whether you are dealing with rural structures or government employees. Much more so than previously assumed, a high level of cross-cultural expertise is essential for working and living in Rwanda. It will naturally be easier for foreign managers to move within the so-called upper class, i.e. the non-agricultural society of urban areas with a strong orientation towards western culture.

Entering into business relationships

Rwanda is part of the East African cultural region so Rwandan society tends, from a scientific point of view, towards collectivism and relationship orientation, short-termism, little avoidance of uncertainties, a large separation of power, minimal regulation, strong hierarchical orientation and an indirect style of communication.

In collective societies, it is common to establish a relationship of trust with the other participants of the group before entering into a business relationship; this is still the case today in Rwanda. It is therefore always important to engage in harmony-promoting small talk.

However, this collectivism, which is also evident in the preferred employment of relatives in the company (particularism), is on the decline within the Rwandan upper class. There, high earning people do not necessarily want to pay for all other family members in the long run.

The same applies to punctuality (strongly context-dependent: business appointment or party in the evening!) and the short term. Although longer-term appointments generally need to be reconfirmed in the short term, the upper echelons have started taking more of a long-term approach to things. This is the case, for instance, with social security or the establishment of a health insurance system. In addition, business plans have been drawn up for several years and decades to come.

Don’t just copy. Understand

But attention: Adopting globally valid cultural elements such as punctuality, time management and a long-term approach often only involves the visible dimension of “culture” and runs counter to the actual cultural imprint. For this reason, foreign managers should not only consider the visible cultural differences such as greetings or external forms of conducting negotiations in the Rwandan context but should also learn to understand how history and social influences have influenced Rwandan culture. This requires a high degree of cross-cultural sensitivity, i.e. the ability to analyze the interweaving of different effects on culture and cultural understanding as well as the ability to apply social skills to understanding cultural differences and to react with empathy to difficult situations in a cross-cultural context.

Do’s and don’ts in Rwanda

It is often the case that experts in development cooperation, business people or tourists would like “guidelines” or want to avoid “putting their foot in it” when they visit Rwanda. However, even with some knowledge, you should not be led to believe that this is “enough” or that you are being cross-culturally sensitive:

  • Dress in a neat and tidy manner; how you dress is an expression of hierarchical understanding and respect.
  • Don’t talk or talk only little about Rwanda’s historical past, especially if you are a business partner or a tourist, unless it is absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t publicly mention the different ethnic groups in Rwanda.
  • Try to communicate in either English and/or French. It’s even better to be able to do both. Nobody expects you to speak the national language, but Rwandans will be pleased if you know a few words or greetings.
  • Try to follow the predominant indirect style of communication and don’t force a “let’s get down to business” style.
  • Don’t try and “go native” in an attempt to show solidarity by sleeping on a grass mat in the countryside or doing without a mosquito net. You will just be met with bemusement!
  • The same goes for foreigners who refuse to hire domestic workers because they do not want to become “colonialists”: This behavior will end up being counterproductive and you will be described as stingy.
  • Be very cautious with criticism of the country and their politics.
  • Tastes differ and should be respected – this is true when it comes to things such as the home decor for wealthier families, culinary delights or the “car question”.

Taking Rwandans seriously as business partners

Since the terrible genocide of 1994, Rwanda has undergone a remarkable transformation towards economic recovery. Even if an improvement in living conditions is initially concentrated mainly on the urban population, Rwandans can rightly be proud of it. Today, Rwandans are valued as investment partners not least because of their rigid security regulations, their fight against corruption and their highly disciplined working environment. A “colonial behavior” of Europeans is guaranteed to be the wrong approach to achieving good and fruitful cooperation. The professional competence of many Rwandans in a higher position that they have acquired due to their high qualification is indeed a good starting point for negotiations on an equal footing.

However, adapting to the cultural conditions in Rwanda does not mean that you have to abandon your own cultural values. Foreign professionals are often valued for their determination, organization and effectiveness in working life and for their straightforward way of putting things into words. It is, of course, all a matter of sensitivity in dealing with one another that integration should not be confused with assimilation. Showing openness, making an effort to understand cultural values and norms, empathy and patience are often worth more than simply adopting behavior that you may have misunderstood.

Beware of prejudice

Rwandans are considered to be extremely distant and reserved. Going to Rwanda with prejudices of this kind will only be detrimental to communication, jeopardize the success of the project, and create a bad image of foreign nationals in Rwanda. To begin with, it is (almost) always the case that there is truth in the saying “What goes around, comes around”. Besides: In which context and towards whom or what are the Rwandans supposedly closed off to? Only to the white people? – Their colonial past has not been forgotten. In a work context? Within their families?

So be careful of such prejudices or stereotypes. In terms of interpersonal distance – i.e. keeping one’s distance (= proxemics) – Rwanda initially appears to be similar to other African countries: it is considered to be on the low side. This is noticeable, for example, when queuing up in a bank. The next person in the queue is very close! But if you look at traditional forms of keeping one’s distance, you will notice that dispersed settlement practices (scattered settlements; in the past, one family farmed a hill) in Rwanda continue to lead to a certain emotional distance. Like in many Western countries, people try to demarcate their private sphere from their neighbors. In restaurants you will often find small huts reserved for a family or a group of people, which stand apart from the other guests. You can expect quite a few surprises regarding cultural expressions in Rwanda.

Interestingly, recent basic scientific research on the cultural dimensions of different countries or country clusters also reveals a strong similarity between Rwandan and German culture in terms of so-called devotion and mastery – a strong contrast to West Africa, for example, and even to Uganda, the country north of Rwanda. Surprising, isn’t it? Too often, when people think of Africa, they still think tend to pigeonhole and stereotype.
Rwanda’s place in the dominance scale (discipline)*:
Rwanda: Rank 57
Germany: Rank 52
Uganda: Rank 33
Ghana: Rank 10
(The higher the rank, the higher the dominance)
* according to “The Sixth Cultural Dimension” by Hofstede: Indulgence versus Restraint

Self-awareness, reflection and change of perspective

Being aware of one’s own cultural imprint, reflecting on culturally conditioned ways of acting and putting oneself in the shoes of another culture – these are ways of increasing cross-cultural skills and enabling them to take hold. In Rwanda in particular, it is advisable to question your own perspective and behavior in everyday situations, during business negotiations and during project implementation. How would you react if you had to live with a similar violent and distrustful past today? How would you behave if you had existential fears and were afraid of being destitute, hungry and isolated? The Rwandans appreciate it when we, the “mzungus” (= whites), through patience, understanding, empathy and interest in Rwandan culture are able to come to a cross-cultural understanding of their way of life. And for us it is important to develop cross-cultural sensitivity as a basis for cooperation and thus to change and strengthen ourselves and our personalities.

Dr. Eva Biele

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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