Rwanda is a social place. In some ways it’s a socialist place, and one of those ways is the employment policy at restaurants and hotels city-wide. Right now I am writing from a table at the café at Chez Lando. There must be, --and let me count to make sure—10 waiters in uniform and, let me count again, 6 of them that are doing absolutely nothing at the moment. That is six people who are standing around, looking, waiting, and standing.
Meanwhile, I am three meters over, sitting at an empty table with an empty stomach. They see here that there is nothing on my table; they see here that I am looking at them, but there is no movement of life inside them; just wasting time, wasting their lives, wasting my own. Socialist indeed. It is not just at Chez Lando.
At many eateries, large like this one, or small like the canteen opposite the new Top Tower Hotel and post office in Kacyiru, there is an abundance of servers, a drought of customers, and a complete absence of any customer service whatsoever. When they do come to the table, they hardly stay for more than a minute. I get one word out of my mouth—one word of a long would-be sentence—and they walk away.
Sometimes I try to order a drink and they leave the table without even bothering to ask the person sitting next to me if they want something as well. The most infuriating thing is that, rather than simple dumb plain stupidity being the reason, which most people tend to believe, I believe that it is more often than not because of insecurity about English. Not only is there a sever communication gap between our clans, but it is exacerbated by fear of this gap.
There is such a fear of telling me simply that they don’t understand, that it becomes easier, and far more common, that I am simply ignored, or a head is nodded when really neither of us know what either is saying. Most of the time, in fact, I think people are not even trying to listen, let alone understand. Of course that doe not explain why I have to yell out, literally yell out, to get a waiter to come to my table.
There is no country like this I have ever been, and no people like this I have ever met. It is something that, somehow ironically, as a foreigner I initially cared little about, but the longer I live here, the more angry I get. Recently I took a nice week-long trip to Burundi. Mess of a country. Rebel groups and a weak government, bombed out roads, bombed out buildings, malaria here and there and everywhere.
They know how to serve people though, damn well. They even know enough, or care enough, to make the place they work or live beautiful. They think about paint colors, they think about furniture design, they think about bringing someone a napkin, or taking actually less than a minute to retrieve a beer I asked for from behind the bar. East African time in Rwanda–that same thing will take you five minutes, at best.
They even had the class to not call me muzungu. They called me Monsieur Muzungu. That’s something I can learn to tip my hat to. But back here in Kigali I am still waiting. I have come up with reasons in my head—the lack of business to keep people busy; the altitude of the hills, the attitude of the economy, even the slant of the architecture, the low hanging lazy verandas—but in the end they become simply excuses, because there really is no excuse for not doing your job, especially when you are as lucky as you are in Rwanda to have one.
And there is no excuse, and no justice in charging someone Frw5000 for a plate of chicken, and then charge more for sauce to put on that chicken, and to serve me a small scrawny leg of a chicken that I wouldn’t even let be alive in my back yard. I am sorry, but for too long does the economy of this country gravitate towards the providers, rather than the clients. I shouldn’t have to pay for something that does not even come close to being worth its cost.
And there is no excuse for me waiting for that chicken for over an hour. I’ve cooked chicken before, I know how long it takes. And I know how long it takes to cook a brochette. Not an hour. Not even close. Sadly, that is the case 99 per cent of the time.
Rwanda and the Government of Rwanda has created a pristine and gorgeous image of the country and the tourists are flocking. But until services as basic as the food industry improve, and as long as employees in any company sit or stand around idle, while people seek their services, the people here will always be looked down upon.
You are giving the country a bad name and you are giving yourself a bad name. Maybe they don’t care so much for the socio-political effects, but hear this; you’re hurting your business too. For too long this economy has revolved around the supplier, instead of the client. For too long it matters not whether one customer is unsatisfied, because there simply aren’t so many options for that customer.
Let me tell everybody something. Times are changing; the customer is getting smarter and pickier, and in a matter of days (Kenyan-chain Nakumatt moves in this year) the East African Community will open up and businessmen and investors will pour in from throughout the continent and region, seasoned veterans already privy to competitive business in a way Rwanda simply isn’t.
And then all of a sudden many of these businesses we now frequent will be defunct, and the employees sitting on the sidelines, or should I say sidewalks—and they will be the bitter ones.