Rwanda, a landlocked nation, shares borders with Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its capital city, Kigali, is just 694 miles from the equator. Rwanda is the second smallest nation in Africa and is known to be the cleanest nation in East Africa.
Known as the "land of a thousand hills," Rwanda has mountains and hills everywhere and towns and cities located at substantial elevations. Rwanda is made up of flat plains along the Tanzania border and steep mountains along the continental divide between the Congo and Nile rivers. Rwanda also has a range of high volcanoes. The difficulty of travel and isolation resulting from the mountainous areas of Rwanda have historically created largely self-sufficient local communities and many local variations of the culture.
The Virungas Massif, of which Volcanoes National Park is part of, has the highest population of mountain gorillas, estimated to be 60% of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas in the wild. Rwanda is also known as Rwanda is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Of the 23 bird species in the world, Rwanda is home to seven of them (including many rare species). The Nyungwe Forest, in particular, is famous for its diverse beauty and number of birds. The Gold Crested Crane is the national bird and can be seen at Akagera National Park. Akagera is also home to the elusive Shoebill.
Rwanda is among the most rural countries in the world. Most people live in individual family compounds surrounded by banana groves and fields and scattered across the hillsides. The hill—the collection of families living on a single hill—has historically been the central social and political unit. Most residents live largely from subsistence farming, growing some coffee on the side as a means of earning income.
In recent years, the modern centralized state has encouraged cultural homogenization and a blending of communities and cultures in Rwanda. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. Prior to the 1994 war and genocide, Rwanda was among the most rural countries in the world. But the war precipitated rapid urbanization, with many refugees choosing not to return to their rural homes but to settle instead in the cities, primarily Kigali.
Fun Fact: Rwanda is the 4th smallest country on the African Continent and is a very tiny country by African standard. Its total area is equivalent to a small district in neighboring Tanzania. In the entire world, Rwanda ranks 149th out of almost 200 countries in terms of total area.
Rwanda is a country of mainly three groups of people these are the Hutu, Tutsi, and the Twa. The Hutu dominates other groups with over 84% of the population, followed by the Tutsi with 15%. The culture of Rwanda is varied. Music and dance are an essential part of Rwandan ceremonies, celebration, social gatherings and storytelling. Although the country has a growing popular music industry with very many musicians most of them are influenced by East African, Congolese, and American music. The most popular genre is hip hop, with a blend of rap, ragga, R&B and dance-pop.
Art and craft are produced throughout the country, while most originated as functional items rather than purely for adornment. Woven baskets and bowls are especially common and women are the most gifted in this field. One of the most sought-after, and unusual, uses the Imigongo or unique cow dung art. This basked type is produced in southeast Rwanda and dates back for generations. The dung is mixed up with natural soils of various colors and painted into gorgeous ridges to form arithmetical shapes. Other sought-after and locally-made items include pottery and wood carving crafts.
Fun Fact: Local art is on display everywhere in Rwanda. Many of the hotels double as galleries for local artists. These places often fill their hallways, walls and common areas with paintings made by local artists, which are also for sale. Funds support the artists and programs for local street children to receive services, education, etc.
Rwanda has kept the young men and women active in the country’s culture. Music and move are a great piece of Rwandan services, celebrations, social get-together, and narrating. The most popular customary move is Intore, a very choreographed routine comprising of three parts – the aerial artistry, performed by ladies; the move of saints, performed by men, and the drums. Drums are of incredible vitality, the regal drummers having a high status within Rwanda.
Fun Fact: Tourists cannot bring plastic bags into the country, and stores do not give any out. Instead, people use paper bags or biodegradable bags made from cassava leaves or banana leaves. This reflects the nation’s commitment to reusable items.
The important ethnic divisions within Rwandan culture between Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa are based on perceptions of historical group origins rather than on cultural differences. All three groups speak the same language, practice the same religions, and live together throughout the same territory. They are widely considered to share a common culture, despite deep political divisions.
Historically, Rwanda's three ethnic groups have been identified with distinct aspects of the economy: the Tutsi with cattle, the Hutu with the land, and Twa with the forests. Each group had distinct roles in public rituals, and each group had a distinctive mode of dress.
After the extreme violence that Rwanda experienced in the genocide of 1994, Rwandan society underwent rapid social change. Most of the returned Tutsi refugees chose to settle in urban areas, while most Tutsi in the countryside were killed or chose to move to the cities as well. As a result, urbanization took on a new ethnic character, even as the rate of urbanization jumped dramatically. The government instituted a program in the countryside, forcing peasant farmers to leave their isolated homesteads to live together in small, overcrowded villages.
Fun Fact: The last Saturday of every month is dedicated to community service. Umuganda means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome.” This practice is one of many efforts to rebuild Rwanda following the 1994 genocide. It takes place on the last Saturday of each month and lasts for typically three hours. Everyone is expected to contribute during that day in whatever way they can, perhaps cleaning up a local space, assisting a neighbor with a gardening need, repairing public facilities, building schools and more.
Rwandan food is quite simple, with beans, bananas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and sorghum being the most common foods. Dairy products are also widely consumed, particularly a traditional drink of curdled milk. Those who can afford to do so also eat meat, primarily beef, goat, and chicken. Sorghum and banana beers are common as well.
While the system of clans has diminished sharply in importance in Rwanda, most Rwandans will still not eat the totemic animals associated with their clans. Important occasions in Rwanda always involve the ceremonial consumption of alcohol and food, but full meals are never served. It is also customary to serve people food and drink when they visit a home. Refusing to partake of offered food or drink is considered a grave insult. Visitors are often presented with food as gifts to take with them at the conclusion of their visits.
Historically, social status was symbolized through the possession of cattle, the primary sign of wealth in Rwanda. Although ownership of cattle is no longer associated with ethnic identity, it remains an important symbol of status. Other historic symbols of high social status, such as elaborate hair styles and distinctive dress, are no longer in practice. Social status in contemporary Rwanda is reflected in the knowledge of French or English, which demonstrates a degree of education, and in the possession of consumer goods such as vehicles and televisions.
Fun Fact: In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, there are various car-free zones where pedestrians and cyclists can roam freely. Rwanda also implements a car-free day each month in which the government encourages residents to exercise and focus on healthy living.
Marriage is considered the most basic social institution in Rwanda, and the pressure to marry and have children is quite heavy. Most couples today select their own mates, though approval of the family is expected.
Rwandans consider children a sign of wealth, and bearing children is an important social duty. Rwandan families are quite large and families typically live in single-family compounds consisting of several buildings surrounded by a hedge or fence. The husband's extended family typically lives in close proximity on the same hill or on a nearby hill. The wife's family may also live nearby or may be from further away, but both the husband's and wife's kin have important socially defined relations with the family. Women bearing children out of wedlock were once punished by banishment or death. Illegitimacy remains strongly stigmatized, though it is also relatively common.
The mother has the primary responsibility for child rearing and education. Her eldest brother, the maternal uncle, also plays an important part in overseeing the moral development and socialization of the children, ensuring that they learn social traditions. The Rwandan government provides formal education for children, though only about 60 percent of children ever attend school. Even the small required fees are too much for many families to afford.
Rwanda puts little emphasis on higher education. Less than 10 percent of Rwandans attend high school, and another small portion attends technical training schools. A very small percentage of the population goes on to university. Rwanda has one national university based in Butare, with branches in Kigali and Ruhengeri. In the past decade, several small private colleges have also been established.
Fun Fact: Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world, with 64% of parliament members being female.
With its long history of hierarchical social relations, Rwandan culture puts great emphasis on practices of etiquette that demonstrate respect and emphasize social rank both inside and outside the family. Within the family, chairs are traditionally reserved for men, while other family members sit on mats on the floor. Men eat first, with women and children eating after. Visitors are given the best chairs and the first choice of food and drink.
Rwandans almost always shake hands upon encountering someone. When greeting someone of higher rank, a person extends his or her right hand while placing the left hand on the right arm in a sign of deference. Close friends and others of equal rank may embrace, holding one another by the shoulders and brushing their heads together first on one side then on the other.
Fun Fact: You are not allowed to wear flip-flop sandals while walking in public places in Rwanda. Being open, this is considered unhygienic, as flip-flops do not cover the vulnerable parts of your feet. It is also thought that flip-flops easily pick up and spread germ-infested dirt onto other people’s feet, especially if they are behind you.
Christianity has become a central part of Rwandan culture. The most dominant religions in Rwanda are Roman Catholic, Protestant, Adventist, and Muslim. More than 60 percent of the population are Catholics, and another 30 percent are Protestants, with the largest Protestant churches including Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Free Methodists, and Baptists. Adventism and Islam are also active in Rwanda, though practiced by a much smaller population.
Many Rwandans credit the Catholic Church with having supported the Hutu rise to power in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the church has thus gained great influence and public support among Hutu. With the demise of the monarchy, most of the associated religious rituals ended, and Christian rituals have come to take their places. At the same time, most Rwandan Christians continue to participate in certain indigenous religious practices as well. Veneration of ancestors remains widespread, with most Rwandans continuing to have traditional funerals and other traditional rites for the dead. Indigenous healers remain common as well.
Rwanda is a rising star in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. It has risen from the 1994 genocide to now claiming the designation as one of the fastest rising economies in Africa and the world. Rwanda is setting itself apart with a focus on having clean cities and Smart Digital Cities as it transforms into becoming an environment-friendly tech-savvy digital republic.