On a walk to a meeting the other day, I bumped into a young man I hadn’t seen for several months. After deciding on the appropriate greeting (you know in Kigali, it’s always a tossup between bisous, handshakes and hugs), he asked where I was heading and he offered to escort me the rest of the way. As we walked, discussing business (that’s all I seem to talk about these days!), I noticed something different. When I smiled in his direction he would forget what he was saying for a few seconds. When I laughed he looked happy and distressed all at once. Oh, wow. I had forgotten what this was like.
After three years in Kigali, I had forgotten what it was like to have this kind of effect on a man. I have gotten so used to the nonchalance of my Rwandan brothers that I forgot it was possible to get a jama all flustered and confused by simply being a lady. Yes, the young man in question was not Rwandan - he was from one of our neighbouring countries, where ladies still have the upper hand.
One of the first things I noticed when I was still new in Kigali was that I could walk down the street (apart from certain parts of downtown) and the only men that would shout out to me were hawkers trying to sell me knock-off sunglasses and perfume. You see I was used to the streets of Kampala and Nairobi where you were accosted by whistling, hoots, the occasional line of poetry if you crossed paths with any man over the age of 16 (if that). I had learned to walk carrying this air of indifference - as if I didn’t notice or care. Here, you can walk past a construction site - notorious in any other city as a hotspot for catcalls - and get nothing more than a few impassioned stares. A Kenyan guy once told me that he believed Rwandan men don’t make much of an effort to impress a lady because, as there are so many pretty ladies, if she’s not interested, there’s several million more where she came from. I will allow the Rwanda men reading this to confirm or deny these allegations. Perhaps it is just that the datin
g culture is different here.
It’s like the way business is done here - it is a culture of it’s own, and there are a few things which I had to learn the hard way.
One of the first things I learnt was that business here means meetings. Meetings eat up so much of my time and I confess that I try to avoid them as much as possible. Often, what is concluded after a three hour meeting (30 minutes waiting for everyone to arrive, one hour introducing ourselves and reminiscing about the last meeting, 30 minutes discussing the agenda and making a decision on one point, one hour drinking tea and planning the next meeting) could have been done in a one-minute email. But getting a reply via email is tricky, so often you are forced to set up a meeting.
Speaking of meetings, that brings me to another element of the business culture: people also like to talk here. Okay, who doesn’t like to talk anywhere? I know I do - if you are willing to sit back and say, “Mmm hmm”, and “Yeah, I know what you mean”, at appropriate pauses I could go on and on and on. That said, I have a business to run and we all know that time is money. So if it was possible for you to tell me the kind of website you need and for me to tell you what it will cost you on the short ride up the elevator, I’d do it. But you’d probably prefer me to take your card and set up a meeting.
Finally, the one thing that really stands out - especially among the rest of East Africa - is people barely negotiate. I think it is, in part, because business people here are still quite honest, and secondly, because the community is so small, everyone knows the fair price anyway. This goes right down to the lady selling oranges at the petrol station - the first price she gives is probably a fair price. Perhaps if you look or sound foreign she might try to sneak in a few extra francs - but she ain’t got nothing on her sisters across the border. In Uganda, as the buyer, you know, and the merchant knows, that the first price they give you is double what they are willing to accept (if that). It is a lovely game of feigned shock and horror - usually with you pretending to walk away and them calling you back at the last minute. Oh the joy of a good haggle - I often miss it!
Now, I know it must sound like I’m presenting the Rwandan business culture from biased and unflattering perspective. Please understand, in some ways I am still new to it and so I’m still getting over the initial culture shocks. Cultures have a history and develop according to the climate - competition in many sectors here is still low and the community is tight-knit i.e. everybody knows everybody - so, is it any wonder that people have the time to have long drawn out meetings where they, give 30 minute presentations and openly give their first and final price? That said, cultures change - every African business person knows that. We import ideas, styles, customs and adapt them to our own. I’m sure as the private sector starts (or should I continue) booming we’ll start hustling like our Kenyan brothers and sisters and miss the good old days when we had time to meet from 3pm to 6pm.
Just like I miss the days when I would walk down the street and have to block out the shouts of my many male admirers.
Akaliza Keza Gara is the owner of Shaking Sun Ltd, a multimedia business in Kigali.