We hold certain cultural norms inviolate, assuming that the entire of humanity must believe as we do. The taboo against staring is one of these. I first ran across this cultural difference decades ago in India. A long hard stare at something or someone is not considered impolite or aggressive. In fact, staring at something that strikes your interest sounds pretty reasonable on the surface. But when you’re the object of that gaze, and you’ve grown up in our western society, these hard looks can make one twitchy.
Rwanda is turning out to be one such culture. Here the hard stare is coupled with another phenomenon, smile rationing. History has taught Rwandans to be wary. Smiles are not handed out willy-nilly to all-comers who happen to catch your eye on the street. The people of Rwanda do smile, but those smiles must be earned. Stella sharing polaroids with her subjects, my stumbling attempts to speak Kinyarwanda, Jen bargaining for an avocado, these have earned us happy faces and smiles.
So our first weeks, as we nervously learned to negotiate Kigali, was a time of hard stares and uncomfortable walks through the city. But now we’ve learned the secret. With just a word or two, Muraho, Amakuru, the stares dissolve and the faces open up, curious, friendly, proud. It’s then that we see the true faces of Rwanda.