A Rwandan Culture of Eating – Or Not

Recently, I was driving around town doing errands and rushing to complete them before mid-afternoon. In the course of events, I remembered I hadn’t eaten anything the whole day. I stepped into a café and bought a sandwich of sorts, and decided I’d have to eat it on the go to save up on time. I took a bite as I left the café, and as I was about to walk to the next shop still munching on the sandwich, I found myself making a detour to my car, where I proceeded to finish up the meal in privacy.
Diana Mpyisi
Diana Mpyisi

Recently, I was driving around town doing errands and rushing to complete them before mid-afternoon. In the course of events, I remembered I hadn’t eaten anything the whole day. I stepped into a café and bought a sandwich of sorts, and decided I’d have to eat it on the go to save up on time.

I took a bite as I left the café, and as I was about to walk to the next shop still munching on the sandwich, I found myself making a detour to my car, where I proceeded to finish up the meal in privacy.

This act was almost unconscious, and done without much thought. It is only when I finished eating, dusting away the crumbs when I realised how powerful cultural habits are, and how deep they permeate the psyche without one fully realising it.

The cultural phenomenon of absolutely not eating and drinking in public (unless of course at a restaurant or bar), stretches back to traditional Rwanda. No one had ever sat me down and explicitly told me to never eat and walk in public (not that I can remember). 

That I acted on this taboo in a split second, which was somehow rooted in my unconscious or perhaps even subliminally communicated, is, for lack of a better word – interesting.

I read somewhere that eating and walking in public was considered the height of insolence, and stretches back to times of famine, when eating in front of a starving person without sharing would have been callous. Eating was done primarily in people’s homes, and eating out was most unlikely.

Thinking about it, this is pretty much the same scenario today. Although not as taboo as before, the culture of eating out is a budding one, and the restaurants dotted around the city are rarely filled to capacity on a regular basis.

I was discussing this with someone who described to me his father’s reaction to his penchant for eating at restaurants. His father described his mouth to his feet, stating that wherever his feet took him, his mouth would be actively engaged as well. I found this hilarious, but it is indeed a valid reaction based on the Rwandan cultural phenomenon regarding food.

I doubt that Kigali will ever be a food capital of the world. One food writer I met with wondered what the content of her articles would be. Our staple meals which consist mostly of beans, yams, ubugali (maize-meal dough) and an abundance of milk – are yet to evolve to higher levels of creativity or sophistication. Intricate food delicacies (sometimes equally stomach-turning) such as the South African Mopani worm; fish eggs – also known as Caviar; charcoal-grilled blowfish; the UK’s black pudding (cooked and congealed pork blood); Tanzania’s mouthwatering coconut rice – are some gastronomic inventions we are yet to see. Perhaps it is just as well, and perhaps simple dishes such as sweet potatoes and Ikivuguto (curdled milk) will continue to be a culinary delight for most Rwandans for a long time to come.

deempyisi@googlemail.com

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