9 mistakes to avoid as a tourist in Rwanda

You know what I like?


Being a tourist. Yes. A good old tourist. Doesn't matter where I am, I will act like a foreigner visiting the place for the first time (even in my home town!)


There is something about it. It's like walking around with a dollar sign on your forehead. You know what I mean? 

The locals assume you have a heavy wallet. So, as long as you act the part, you enjoy easy access into events, cultural attractions, clubs, museums, you name it. 


Being a tourist is a badge of honor. *wink*


However, there are certain behaviors that give tourists a 'bad name'.


For example, when they ride elephants in Thailand or  take pictures with drugged tigers in China. This kind of behavior is frowned upon by the locals but the culprits are never aware of what they are doing wrong (most times anyway).


If only someone would make a list of mistakes not to make when visiting every country on earth!


Well, I will be that person. Maybe not for every country. But for Rwanda.


Here is a list of mistakes to avoid as a tourist in Rwanda.


1. The 'obsession' with the Genocide 

Kigali, Rwanda

The 1994 Rwanda genocide is still one of the most talked-about catastrophes today. Within 100 days, a population of about 1,000,000 was wiped out through mass murders of Tutsis and Hutus (ethnic groups in Rwanda). These are the darkest days Rwanda has seen to-date.


For over 20 years, Rwandans have constantly dealt with reminders of the fateful event. The world refuses to forget. In fact, most foreigners do not know anything about the country, except for the genocide. But Rwandans are ready to move on. They want the country to be appreciated for its progress, not its past.


As a foreigner, it is okay to be curious about the genocide. But remember to be respectful. There are many people who have been immensely impacted by the genocide and have had to live with the loss every single day. Be mindful when inquiring about it from the locals. On my recent trip to Rwanda,  I met a lady who lost 9 out of 10 children. Her story is a common one among many Rwandans. 

2. The plastic bag

Kudos to Rwanda for being one of the first countries in the world to effectively impose a ban on the non-biodegradable plastic bags.


At the border, luggage is thoroughly checked to ensure that no plastic bags enter the country. The streets of Kigali and other towns are a clear indication of how successful the implementation is. 


Although, a few polythene bags get into the country through the black market, the Rwandan government has made commendable efforts to ensure that they are limited.


So, as you head to Rwanda, leave the plastic bags at home. The penalties of possessing plastic bags in the country are no joke.

3. Safety Concerns

Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world. Yes, in the world.  You don't have to worry about pick pockets as you walk the streets like in most countries. Generally, the crime rate is considerably low. Knowing this, tourists get too relaxed and forget to take basic precautions.


They forget that petty thieves do exist everywhere in the world, if you make it too easy. So, on busy streets, avoid carrying valuables like phones, wallets and money in obvious places like back pockets. Also, avoid leaving your luggage unattended. A little bit of vigilance is necessary. Do not throw caution to the wind.


3.  Paying a little 'extra' to speed up processes 

If a traffic officer asks for a cup of tea or for something small, that is code for 'I need a bribe'. The code words vary for different countries. In Rwanda, when asked for a bribe, proceed with caution. There is a 50% chance that you are about to be featured on a TV show. 


In recent years, Rwanda has made sustainable efforts to clamp down the levels of corruption. There are heavy penalties for culprits and Rwanda has built a reputation as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa.


Punishments for the guilty range from fines through imprisonment to public shaming. So, beware! 

4. Taking photos without consent

This gorgeous lady wanted a photo with her son. Who am I to say No?

At certain tourist locations such as museums, the Genocide memorial, cultural attractions, there are strict policies about photography. For example, at the Genocide memorial, photos are restricted as a sign of respect to the dead, though you can pay 10$ to use your camera inside the museum.


It is advisable to request for permission before taking photos at both the tourist and non-tourist places. Rwandans appreciate the respect and usually the response is positive.


Side note: Always ask for permission from the locals before taking their photos. I learnt my lesson the hard way. Deep in the village in Huye district, a local man asked my friends and I to take a photo of him. There was no reason for saying no, so of course, we agreed.


As soon as we did, he asked for payment for the photo. We hesitated. He was then backed up by over 30 other farmers who insisted that we pay before we leave. Long story short, we left a happy butch behind. But we weren't as excited.  For children, ask for permission from an adult.

6. Searching for the 'logic' behing the legends

Ruganzu Cave in the Southern Province (Rwanda)

You have to understand that there are many legends and myths in Africa. In the Traditional African Society, these were created to explain the unexplained. There were legends about the formation of rocks, waterfalls, hot springs, caves, even about abnormally sized trees. There had to be an explanation for why things existed, and Africans always provided one.


Today, even with the scientific reasons for geographical formations, many Africans still hold onto the legends and myths. So, when you visit rocks, caves or waterfalls, expect to listen to a great tale explaining its formation or at the very least, its name. 


My advice to you is to listen intently as the locals explain. Do not try to counter the explanations with the logical or scientific version.


These legends are actually very interesting and carry meaningful messages. So, get lost in the mythical world. Read my article on the 7 budget places to visit in Rwanda to learn more about some of Rwanda's cultural attractions with catchy legends. 

7. Bargaining like a foreigner

For the most part, Rwandans are straight forward people. Even at the local markets, you do not have to heavily bargain to get to the fair price. Plus, prices are fixed for most commodities at the local markets. You may have to bargain at the street shops in downtown Kigali though. Nonetheless, you have to be smart.


For example, do not speak English in the markets (or wave your money around). Although the country is transitioning from a French to an English speaking nation, Kinyarwanda is still the predominant language of the country.


English is viewed as very 'touristy'. Therefore, it gives the locals the assumption that you have a lot of money to throw around. Either visit the markets with a local or learn a few Kinyarwanda phrases, lest you pay the premium price.

8. Asking, 'What tribe do you belong to?'


The 1994 genocide ignited due to ethnic tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the 2 main tribes at the time. After the genocide, a decision was made to do away with tribes in Rwanda. This was a conscious decision to ensure that what happened in 1994 never happens again. 


Today, Hutus and Tsutsis live side-by-side, working hard to ensure that the country moves forward. Although many Rwandans will not directly address it, they prefer not to be questioned about their tribes. Because tribes brought nothing but agony.

9. Speaking ill of the president

Okay, maybe not all Rwandans are guilty of this, but most of them don't take kindly to people (foreigners especially) speaking ill about their president. In fact, most of them view President Kagame as a savior and/or a big brother they look up to and hold to high regard.


They view him as someone who has seen the nation at its worst and pulled the country out of its darkest moments. They leaned on him when the world turned a blind eye to what was happening in the country. You will notice that the locals will quickly jump to his defense in any argument. It is definitely interesting and new to many foreigners. As a tourist, you should be respectful of the locals' opinion and avoid questioning what is sometimes referred to as their blind loyalty to him.


All in all, it is fascinating to witness how far the country has come under proper governance. As you walk the streets of Kigali, it is hard to believe that a genocide ever happened in the booming state. If you are visiting Rwanda for the first time, I would advise you to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial at the first chance you get. You will understand and appreciate Rwanda so much more.


Murakaza Neza.

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