Despite a turbulent history, Rwanda today is a fairly safe place to travel. I have walked around Kigali without too much hassle, other than a few people shouting ‘Mzungu!’ Expect some extra attention as a traveller, especially if you are white British or American. However, during my time in Rwanda, I have experienced less hassle compared to other countries like Uganda and India. Here are my top Rwanda travel tips on what to expect in Rwanda, and how to deal with it.
Rwanda Travel Tips
#1 Rwanda Travel Tips: Mzungu in Rwanda!
If you are white, you should expect to hear the word Mzungu everywhere you go! Race can be a touchy subject, I know, and it should be irrelevant. But, Mzungu is the Swahili term for someone constantly on the move, applied to a white person since the colonial era, and it can be heard everywhere in East Africa by tourists. Top of my Rwanda travel tips is to take the term ‘Mzungu’ with a pinch of salt.
It is not meant to be racially offensive, just an expression of their surprise to see you. Most Rwandans are respectful and appreciative of white visitors to their country. The majority of white visitors to their country in the last decade or two have been NGO workers or foreign diplomats. Although there has been some controversy in the way that Western people have tried to help developing countries such as Rwanda, as a general rule, Rwandans recognise that as a traveller or NGO volunteer, you are there to help them and bring money into the economy.
The term Mzungu, therefore is not meant to be a negative thing, it is simply a recognition of someone different. Also, remember that some people in Rwanda may have never seen a white person before, particularly in very rural areas. Expect a lot of attention and expected to be followed by children. I once made a baby cry because “She has never seen a Mzungu before!” One of my friends or travel acquaintances even bought a T-shirt saying Mzungu!
#2 Rwanda Travel Tips: Photo? Amafaranga
Many Rwandan people will want to have their photo taken with you. But, what is more likely to happen is that you will want to take a photo of Rwandans to demonstrate a local tradition and culture. This is seen as a money-making opportunity in Rwanda. Don’t be surprised if you are asked for a monetary donation (Amafaranga) to have your picture taken with someone.
Remember, this could actually be the difference between that person feeding their family that day or not. Some travellers may not agree with this principle. It’s up to you what you decide, but think about the history of the country and the difference in culture, and know what to expect. One of my friends travelled to Gisenyi and on the beach, was asked by a Rwandan for photo. She turned this cultural quirk its head and said “if you want to photo give me Amafaranga!”
#3 Rwanda Travel Tips: Mzungu Price
As in most African countries, a tourist is a sign of someone wealthy who they can profit from. Don’t be surprised if you order food in a restaurant and when the bill arrives, the prices have suddenly gone up! We were once even told that the full cooked breakfast that was on the menu was not available. However, we could order individual sausage, bacon, eggs and beans or individually! Of course, this totalled a much higher price!
It is okay to be assertive and prices that are displayed in me on menus if you believe that this practice could be detrimental to Rwanda’s future tourist industry. I often protested if the Mzungu price was higher, and asked for the real price of the food as displayed on the menu. However, if I was happy with the service, I would then give a generous tip.
#4 Rwanda Travel Tips: Buy me a Mobile Phone!
Don’t be surprised if you are asked for gadgets including mobile phones and laptops by local Rwandans that you become friends with. Western volunteers coming into Rwanda over the last 20 years have been particularly generous, especially in the light of the 1994 genocide. I have helped people to buy things in the past, but after spending some time in Africa, I realise now the importance of sustainability.
Buying Rwandans mobile phones and laptops can seem like a good idea. However, in actual fact, all you are doing is teaching them to be dependent on a Mzungu! The best charity projects are those that are sustainable and it might be a better idea to make a donation to a leading charity that has projects in Rwanda such as Comfort Rwanda. You can also decide to fund entrepreneurs starting their own businesses by offering to buy tools.
#5 Rwanda Travel Tips: The Taxi Moto
One of my scariest experiences in Rwanda was on a taxi motel who drove extremely close to the edge of a cliff on my journey to Gisenyi. The taxi motos in Rwanda are much safer than those in Uganda because you are given the helmet. However, I have seen far too many accidents and you might find that you are not covered by your travel insurance if you go on one of these. Personally, I do use them, but I tell them to drive carefully and slowly! One of the scariest things can be the way that all of the taxi motors are in competition with each other.
There was a situation in Gisenyi where a small group of my fellow travellers had arranged for a taxi Moto to collect them. However, when they went out to meet their driver, the price had suddenly tripled. They went to find another cheaper taxi moto, only to find that they had all clubbed together and collaboratively agreed to triple the price.
My two friends had previously met a local, who pulled up in the car to see them in a small spot of trouble. He offered to give them a lift and they jumped in his car. The taxi moto drivers, outraged that none of them were now going to get paid, surrounded the car and tried to force the driver off the cliff. The Rwandan driver of the car drove carefully and assertively, avoiding what could’ve been a potentially very harmful situation.
Sometimes, it is a good idea to use the same Moto or taxi driver when staying in one area. But, of course, as travellers we always find ourselves in a new and different cities with new challenging situations. An element of caution should be displayed when using the taxi motos, but it is an extremely fun way to get around if you have a safe driver!
Oh, and something that you should watch before you go…
Click here for Tripadvisors Top 10 Hotels in Rwanda!