12 February 2017

Africa: 8 Mistakes to Avoid as a Rwanda Tourist

Photo: The New Times
Tourists trek during the Kwita Izina event (file photo)

You know what I like? Being a tourist. Yes. A good old tourist. It does not matter where I am, I will act like a foreigner visiting the place for the first time (even in my home town!). It is like walking around with a dollar sign on your forehead.

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

But every now and then, there are tourists who give other tourists a 'bad name'. When they engage in behaviours that are frowned upon by the locals. If only someone would make a list of mistakes not to make when visiting every country on earth! I will be that person. Maybe not for every country but Rwanda. Here is a list of mistakes to avoid as a tourist in Rwanda.

1.'Obsession' with the genocide

The 1994 Rwanda genocide is still one of the most talked-about catastrophes. Within 100 days, a population of about one million was wiped out. For more than 20 years, Rwandans have constantly dealt with reminders of the fateful event. The world refuses to forget. But Rwandans 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 lost their family members during that dark time. So, be mindful when inquiring about it from the locals.

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 are brought into the country. The streets of Kigali and other towns are clean due to this practice. So, as you head to Rwanda, leave the plastic bags at home.

3. Safety concerns

Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world. You don't have to worry about pick pockets as you walk the streets. Although the crime rate is low, do not get too relaxed and forget to take basic precautions. Petty thieves do exist if you make it too easy. So, do not throw caution to the wind.

4. 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'. In Rwanda, when asked for a bribe, proceed with caution. There is a 50 per cent chance that you are about to be featured on a TV show. That is how serious they are about eliminating it. Also, punishments for the guilty range from fines through imprisonment to public shaming. Beware!

5. Taking pictures without consent

At certain tourist attractions, there are strict policies about photography. For example, at the Genocide Memorial, you have to pay $10( approx. Shs35,000) in order to take pictures inside.

It is advisable to request for permission before taking photos at both the tourist and non-tourist places. In fact, for my website, I had to seek permission from the locals to upload their photos.

6. Bargaining like a foreigner

Do not speak English in the markets. Although the country is transitioning from a Froncophone to Anglophone, Kinyarwanda is the predominant language. So, English is viewed as very 'touristy'. The moment you use English to bargain, the price will double.

7. Inquiring about people's tribes.

After the 1994 genocide, tribes were eliminated in Rwanda. This was a conscious decision to get rid of the ethnic tensions. Today, Hutus and Tutsis' live side-by-side. And, although many Rwandans will not address it directly, they prefer not to be questioned about their tribes. For them, tribes brought nothing but agony.

8. Speaking ill of the president

Most Rwandans do not talk kindly to people (foreigners especially) speaking ill about their president.

They hold him in high regard, and prefer that foreigners do the same. 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.

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