Friday, December 10, 2010


Why in Kigali is the obvious so difficult to discover? Why do key pieces of information sit hidden underneath the table?

Rwandans will sometimes describe themselves as “discreet.” Our region’s rumor mongers love discussing Rwandan secrets. Those who lean towards paranoia conclude that like King Solomon’s hidden mines somewhere in the deep bowels of Kigali lies a massive store room of files and secrets gathered for the last 50 years.

However, what if Rwandan secrecy is simply humility? What if some secrets are just treasures to be discovered in friendship? What if secrecy is only good manners?

Mzee's wife masquerading as daughter
A few months ago, I returned to Rwanda after a year of healing in the US. I boarded a plane from Brussels to Kigali and pondered what old Rwandan friends I would meet on the plane. As I walked the aisle I noticed a friendly familiar face. She realized I was suffering from a fuzzy memory and had the grace to re-introduce herself as a university student of mine from several years ago. After our flight was underway I went back to see what life had given her. She had two beautiful young children. She had a good job. She asked me about my life. She shared that like many in Kigali my family’s health had been a subject of prayers for a year. She remembered 5 years previously when our church and school were only ideas and I a part-time lecturer. She thanked me for the labor. I realized what ever good I had accomplished was only by the grace of Rwanda and God. After about 15 minutes of conversation I decided to ask her about her husband. She gently mentioned that I may know her husband. I hoped he was not a former student or parishioner that would further embarrass my poor memory. Then she disclosed that she was married to a minister. I had never met him before, but seen his picture in the news. I was a bit shocked as he seemed about 15 years older than she. As she caught my foolish observation she told me their family story. I realized that like many of us in Kigali, the minister had married well to a woman who was his age and intellectual peer, but much better looking than he. I disclosed that sometimes my wife is mistaken for my daughter, and I like the minister am very thankful for a youthful looking wife.

I walked aware from our conversation and pondered Rwandan secrecy. If I had boarded a plane to Entebbe or Nairobi, met an old friend from days of youth, and they had married a minister we would not have spent 15 minutes in small talk. My old friends from the region would have disclosed their relationship power within moments of reconnecting. (In fact, my Bazungu clan mates would have done no better in their name dropping.) Maybe, Rwandan secrecy is actually humility?

As we landed in Kigali we both gathered our luggage and our children. We smiled at one another and wished one another well.

Airports are messy gatherings of humanity. After the order of security it all brakes down. Family and friends reconnect. Hugs and tears; smiles and laughter; warm hearts and broken spirits are the substance of airport meetings. In the joyful messiness of community life the crowd is jumbled. Lines become confused. Systematic order is forgotten. I like airport meetings and suspect many others find people watching at an airport much more enjoyable than the latest episode of Big Brother.

I watched my old student meet her husband. He had driven into the VIP section. He gathered his wife and children and prepared to leave. She noticed me and stopped to introduce her husband. We started a simple conversation, and I was a bit embarrassed.

Then we were interrupted an arguing Buvera Muzungu. He was trying to move his luggage cart, and the minister’s car was in the way. The Buvera Muzungu explained that the minister was improperly parked. The minister closed our conversation and drove away. The Buvera Muzungu moved on confident that Rwanda would conform to his corrections.

I was stunned. If I had been in Entebbe or Nairobi and a Buvera Muzungu corrected a minister it would not have closed so quietly. There would have been no peaceful parting. The Buvera Muzungu would have been introduced to the full force of the minister’s power. Only in Kigali would the minister keep his power hidden. Maybe, Rwandan secrecy is actually humility?

A few days later, I pondered the events some more. What are good manners at an airport? How should one respond to the messiness of life in community? Should life become orderly for every luggage cart pusher? Are there parts of life more important than order? It seemed to me that good manners at an airport are full of grace. Good manners at an airport greet and embrace. Good manners at an airport smile as they watch old family and friends reconnect. Good manners at an airport enjoy making new friends. Good manners at an airport wait. They do not correct a stranger. Good manners at an airport treat one with respect whether one’s status is VIP or not. The Buvera Muzungu was rude. The wife was humble. The minister was kind. Maybe, Rwandan secrecy is actually just good manners?


  1. I'm so thrilled reading the story, for some reason, this is Rwandan culture, as you mentioned them, because humbleness truly differentiates us from many. But what thrills me most, is the way you evaluated every detail of it. I'm so grateful that you have that image to my Country and I pray that the world discovers that too. Thank you so much

  2. Well am speechless, this is a good image hope many more people come and see for themselves what our motherland has to offer.