Standing outside a plaza in Kinamba, a middle-aged man approached me and introduced himself simply by saying, “I love mzungus.” He then asked if I was married, had children, and finished by asking for my phone number. I refused, of course.
The clash of the relationship and dating dance has been the hardest cultural experience here, as a Westerner. If the above encounter were to happen in North America, it would have been so outrageously inappropriate it would have been the stuff of Facebook statuses, adding labels such as “creeper” and “pervert.”
Of course, after weeks of frustration over numerous advances from men, I sat down with a Rwandan guy friend to explain to me where I’d gone wrong. I’m a mid-twenties, Canadian female, who’s been in a steady relationship for two years. There are very differing views on what this means, I’ve learned.
The clearest conflict lay in the meaning of boyfriend-girlfriend. I was actually quite shocked to realize that until there’s a ring on your finger, you’re fair game.
Relationships in Canada are more sacred. If someone has a boyfriend or girlfriend, that is a non-negotiable agreement that says, “back off.” Especially for men, honing in on someone else’s girlfriend is a clear violation of the “bro-code” and a direct insult to your fellow man.
If you’re interested in someone who has a significant other, the only solution is to wait in the wings until hopefully the inevitable break-up happens.
Despite the fact I’ve lied and pulled the marriage card a few times to avoid these sorts of interactions, the persistence of some men has been a shock. I’ve had men here acquire my phone number without ever giving it to them, then call me at all hours of the day and night. I’ve also had guys show up uninvited at a place I used to live.
That’s the other difference: while phone numbers are given out liberally here, they are more personal in North America. Showing one of the texts I received from a persistent suitor, my guy friend laughed and simply said, “Yes, he’s falling in love with you.”
How can you love someone after meeting them once? It was six months before my current boyfriend dropped the L-bomb, and that’s really what it’s considered – a bomb, a ground shaking, earth shattering word that could make or break how that person sees you from now on.
Love is complicated in the west and more straightforward here, I think, which is actually a nice thought. I’ve heard many Westerners bemoan the fact that relationships are too complicated and love too political. Relationships are never easy, but it would be nice if love were simpler.
However, my experiences can’t all be black and white cultural divides, I must have done something, as well, to fall into this trap. On discussing the situation with a girl friend here, it dawned on me – the coffee meet-up, the drink after work.
I’m used to going out for coffee or a drink with a guy friend in Canada without anyone thinking the wiser. It doesn’t mean anything. But here’s my huge faux-pas: meeting guys, getting along and agreeing, thinking this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and that coffee or a drink sounds like a nice idea. You don’t want to be mean to people and turn them down, especially if you think they’re a good person… but the point is I’m committed to my boyfriend.
That being said, I’ve met a lot of amazing people here – guys and girls alike – where none of this stuff has mattered and wonderful friendships have blossomed. But I’ve been very naïve about this whole situation, in the end, and learned my lesson too.