The historical social status in Rwanda was symbolized mainly by possession of cattle. The number of cows one owned classified him accordingly. However, today we are experiencing a different trend altogether.
Money wealth takes the lead in the social strata. The products of money like expensive cars, mansions, elaborate hairstyles and distinctive dress codes, are some of the symbols of high social status today.
In this modern era, humankind is redefining positions within the scope of identity, culture, religion and ideology. The period of colonisation was the beginning of effective erosion of the ideas of a vibrant family culture and transformative social behaviour in Rwanda.
A 90-year-old peasant of Rukara-Kayonza District says:
“The country had its unique cultural behaviour and admirable dressing code which is now deteriorating slowly but steadily. European lifestyle has out-competed our culture in terms of dressing, speaking, eating, walking and many other social behaviour, to the extent that they even dismiss the old ones as valueless,” he lamented.
If you look at Rwandans’ lifestyle today (especially in towns), you will see that most of them buy expensive cars, clothes, shoes, rent expensive houses, expensive mobile phones, etc.
This shows that there have been changes in values. What does one need to appear in a high social status? It is no longer the number of cows you own or the traditional social norms and morals you exhibit, but the amount of money you have.
You can only identify yourself as a man or woman of high status if you can buy expensive goods on the market. Families too, gain social classes depending on how much money they have. Such is the life style of today that is very different from the traditional one.
This has been the undoing of very many young and middle aged men and women who want to identify themselves in the high status group while they are still far from getting the means of maintaining it.
In fact, one astute young man, Sehunyeza complains:
“Sometimes I feel sorry for people who want to raise their shoulders beyond their heads by buying expensive cars and other expensive items without considering their real economic status.”
Some young people of course have been victims of successful marketing and advertising organisations that induce them to buy the most expensive “stuff” as a status symbol. So most people (naively), do not want to be left out as far as the social status trend is concerned.
Some purchases are based on luxury, style, and prestige and it is common with products from watches to cars, and collector’s items to homes. It is common to find people buying jewelry, watches, and other personal items based on prestige.
“Jewelry, watches, mobile phones, etc, are taken as expressions of modern lifestyle that determines one’s social status. It is unbelievable to see that even house cleaners these days who earn Frw5000 a month, ask for salary advance to buy mobile phones. For sure when you consider expenses accrued in the use of a mobile phone, you wonder how these young girls and boys survive. If air time and other expenditure attached to mobile phones can constrain the pockets of the middle income earners, what about the house cleaners?” a Kigali resident wondered.
Nevertheless, even the middle class people (not all of course) with relatively bigger incomes do not seem to be rational enough. They acquire loans from banks, only to buy beautiful expensive cars instead of buying a plot of land to construct houses for their families. This is being too myopic and irrational and does not put somebody in today’s so called high social status in the long run.
The same change of culture and attitudes that is western oriented touches all corners. It bends, too, towards language. The shameful admiration of foreign languages at the expense of Kinyarwanda is gaining a lot of momentum.
Jane Batamuriza, a businessperson in town noted: “The rate at which Kinyarwanda is vanishing is very high. Most educated people have now adopted to use either English or French at home and work places. Their children are forced to use foreign languages and if they speak Kinyarwnda, then punishment is ready for them. This kind of attitude threatens our language, yet language is inseparable with culture.”
Kinyarwanda, however, remains a dominant cultural aspect and has great cultural bonds among the people of Rwanda. Its survival, though, is regarded ambivalently: some people feel that Kinyarwanda does not fit the modern technology era that Rwanda has catapulted itself into. They therefore view learning Kinyarwanda, especially in school, as a waste of time.
Batamuriza further attributes the threat of Kinyarwanda to some extent on intermarriages with foreigners. For example, she talks of intermarriages between Rwandans and Ugandans.
“If you marry a Ugandan man for example, the ways of greeting him and his relatives will demand that you to change. You need for example to kneel down, a thing that is not there in the Rwandan culture of greeting with respect. Failure to do this (kneel) will make you be at odds with your husband,” she said.
This has thus had a number of negative impact that goes beyond our concern here but necessary for our broad understanding. For example, married partners have failed to live together for long because of combining lifestyles, which are seemingly a bit confusing.
In Rwanda, like elsewhere in other countries that have inevitably had to accommodate foreign cultures, the western marriage style too, has had great effect.
Batamuriza further said: “Rwandan girls (in rare cases, even men) have had to endure the agony of quick separations and divorce. In the European countries, marriages are under contractual agreements and if not renewed, they end with the expiry of the contract. This greatly contradicts any African culture Rwanda”.
We have so many divorced people because of the western marriage cultures. Women who were married to Europeans or Americans are (most of them) single mothers here in Rwanda.
Metuschelar Niyibizi who is a businessperson in Remera-Giporoso a city suburb says: “Clothing styles and popular fashions have significantly contributed to the decay of our culture.”
The change in our traditional dressing style actually puts a full stop, an end and a real blow to hopes of reviving our purely African culture.
There is no particular attire today that is meant for men and women separately. They can interchange any way they want. You may have women in trousers and men in skirts.
This is purely foreign culture that has encroached on our own. The unfortunate part of it is that women have gone beyond limits and some young girls and women of all ages move almost naked, in imitation of the Hollywood film stars they never tire of watching o their TV screens.
“When you look around for women wearing trousers, two out of three show their belly buttons, others show their undergarments - a situation which is contrary to our culture - a real shame,” Niyibizi said.
There have been a number of changes in the Rwandan culture, and if the trend is not reversed, we shall be seeing a quite different society in a few years to come.
In addition, if we are to save our culture we need to be more practical than theoretical. You know most people have been complaining, but how many will really act and start the fight to keep our culture?
Let us guide our children so that they stay on board with the Rwandan culture. They are the future generation of the country and if we do not make them love their culture, they will not save us the blame. Culture is the strongest identity of a nation.