Hissing, High Fives & Apologies; Some Habits I Have Acquired In Rwanda

22 March 2011 at 03:21 5 comments

During my 5+ months here in Rwanda, I’ve made myself at home in Kigali, and adapted to the Rwandese lifestyle.  I have also picked up some…interesting habits, many of which will not translate when I return home to the US in June.  Below are a handful of quirks that I have acquired during my crash-course in Rwandese culture:

1)      Hissing

Here in Rwanda, it’s acceptable to hiss at someone in order to get their attention.  A simple “tsssss!” is effective for: attracting the attention of a moto-taxi, calling a waiter or bartender, getting someone’s attention on the street, among other things.  When I first arrived here, the hissing phenomenon struck me as being very rude.  But, after 5 months here, I am coming around to it.  The sound carries surprisingly well, so it is more effective than the seemingly more polite attention-getting mechanisms, like waving, or saying “excuse me”, especially in a noisy restaurant.  I have been refraining from the whole hissing thing, however, because it is a habit that I am afraid of taking back with me to my native San Francisco.  I can see it now; being at one of my favorite bars or restaurants in the city, and, forgetting myself, hissing at a waitress, waiter, or bartender.  I imagine this slip-up might warrant an extra ingredient with my drink order (read: saliva).  So, instead, I’ve opted to use my favorite word in Kinyarwanda:

2)      “UMVA!”

“Umva” (OOM-vuh), meaning “look” or “listen”, is possibly the most versatile word I’ve come across so far in Kinyarwanda.  It can be used to get someone’s attention, to emphasize a point, begin an argument, etc, etc.  Due to my aforementioned paranoia about becoming too comfortable with hissing at people, this word has become a prominent part of my vocabulary.  However, no matter how enthusiastic I am about my new favorite word, I doubt I will be successful in starting an “umva” trend in the Bay Area.

3)      “Sorry, sorry”

Let’s face it; I am a klutz.  I am constantly exhibiting my lack of motor skills in public by tripping, falling, spilling stuff, or walking into people or things.  In this way, my life in Rwanda has been no different.  Except for one thing; whenever I do any of the previously mentioned embarrassing things in front of people, passers-by will give me a concerned face and utter a very sympathetic, “ohhhhh sorry, sorry”.  At first, it struck me as odd; I’m the one who bumped into you, why are you apologizing?  After a while, I became accustomed to this expression of sympathy, and have since started doing it myself.  Now, whenever someone stumbles, drops something, or bumps into me, my first reaction is to apologize.  Not because I think it was my fault, but because I sympathize with the person for their bout of clumsiness.  Believe me, I do.  I think I am currently on the receiving end of about 5-10 “sorry, sorry’s” every day.

4)      High-fiving strangers

Maybe it’s because, as a pasty-faced foreigner, I stick out like a sore thumb all the time.  Or maybe it’s the general friendliness of the Rwandese culture.  Maybe it’s a little bit of both, but I seem to receive a lot of high-fives whenever I am out and about in my neighborhood.  This happens particularly during my post-work runs around Kigali (which many people do around here.  Yayyyy sidewalks!).  Whenever I set out for my evening run, I am usually greeted by packs of small children or adolescents who will give me high-fives as I run by.  It’s sweet, encouraging, and I admit, it makes me feel like a bit of a rock star.  A series of high fives from a group of school kids can be motivation to keep going, especially when I am red-faced and breathless towards the end of my route (which is due to the altitude here in Kigali, at 5144 ft.  It definitely has nothing to do with the multitude of French fries that have weaseled their way into my diet since my arrival in Rwanda.  Nope.  Nothing at all).  When I attempt to tackle the hills of San Francisco upon my return, I’ll miss those high fives.  Among other aspects of Rwandese culture, of course 🙂

Field visit to the Bugesera province. Many high-fives were had.

The Kiva Coordinator, Jean Baptiste, and I at the desk we share at ACB headquarters.

Caitlin Ross is a member of KF14 in Kigali, Rwanda, where she is doing back-to-back placements with Amasezerano Community Banking, S.A.  She is currently trying to cut back on her French fry intake.

Also, she will probably still try to make “umva” happen in San Francisco upon her return.

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Entry filed under: Africa, blogsherpa, KF14 (Kiva Fellows 14th Class), Rwanda. Tags: , , .

Update from the Field: Fun Facts, Field Visits + Back to Basics Photos from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


  • […] Hissing, High Fives & Apologies; Some Habits I Have Acquired In Rwanda Country: Rwanda / Fellow: Caitlin Ross (KF14) Adapting to a new place is great while you’re there but potentially awkward when you return home. Caitlin figures out which habits she should leave in Rwanda (hissing) and which need to come back with her to the States (high-fiving strangers). […]

  • 2. Kerry  |  23 March 2011 at 16:07

    I’m in on the UMVA craze. I beleive we can bring it here to the Bay Area and the world! Great post!

  • 3. JD  |  22 March 2011 at 10:03

    Great to hear how you’re doing, Caitlin. We miss you! 🙂

  • 4. Amy  |  22 March 2011 at 07:56

    Love the UMVA and the sorry, sorry thing…not sure how the hissing would go over, but hey, can’t be as bad as men whistling and oogling women all the time! You want beautiful, meaningful, heartfelt high-fives to continue on the streets of SF…do one of the Breast Cancer walks…got them for 40 miles, sweet and salty tears. Keep up the blogging, SO enjoy reading about your adventures! xo

  • 5. dorothybrown  |  22 March 2011 at 07:25

    Please bring back the high-fives and the sorry-sorry habit. Everyone can use some friendliness and empathy. Looking forward to having you back home!

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