Dispatches From Kigali: A Night Out

Reading about Rwanda is OK but you can learn a lot with a simple social call.

Our local team Director recently lost a family member so we had the chance to spend the evening with her saddened family. This was my first step into Rwandan home life and it was a good way to experience lots of Rwandan culture. We began by arriving at the house and having the gardener open a steel door to let the cars enter the walled-in yard (very common in Kigali). The home was welcoming and we began with soft drinks and peanuts. There was friendly and wide ranging chat (some in English) plus softly playing Rwanda TV (none in English).

MRC team - good
Project team at the office. GSK PULSE volunteer, my partner Blondin, center.

Then the Director’s Mom arrived. What a gracious and dynamic woman! She had retired and was now consulting. We called her “Momma + daughter’s first name” –the custom here. She ably held court in 3 languages and gently scolded me for knowing so little Kinyarwanda after 4 months. Two other daughters appeared and we also met an adopted cousin (a common result of the genocide making lots of families larger). We moved to a buffet of traditional Rwandan food including baked cassava (toxic raw and once cooked the densest starch you ever bit into), cassava bread (like a dumpling and best with sauce), passion fruit, tree tomatoes and more starches. When asked to begin the buffet my US manners betrayed me. Turns out that men are served first while women follow and also clean up. More stories, laughs and conversation led to the main event. We presented a modest gift and a Rwandan team-mate stood and offered a touching condolence. In return Momma X caressed each of us with words of thanks, sorrow and hope that anyone her age has had to speak many times since the 1994 genocide. We held hands for a closing prayer and emerged on the front porch hugging, saying good night and feeling really glad that we came.

Typical spread: Mostly starches. Cassava bread (lower left).
Team MRC and Mom
Project Team and Momma X!
Rwandan team Director (middle) and Regulatory Affairs officer (right).

Looking back on this night, it’s easy to see that the values that my Rwandan friends and I hold dear are sometimes dressed up to look different.  At the office, the real work of this PULSE assignment has been to confirm whether differences really exist, gauge my team mates’ abilities (meet them where they are) and then explore how we can get the job done.  What a great chance to practice some important techniques from GSK’s Leadership Development Program (LDP)!  As a bonus, this also lines up with a goal I set before coming to Rwanda: to get more comfortable with conflict and release the creativity that comes from it.


  1. What a beautiful glimpse into the Rwandan culture. I too have learned so much from spending time with the locals outside of work. You are certainly being the change:)

  2. Jim, I love reading about your varied experiences. Thank you for sharing all the beauty of the culture and people of Rwanda.

  3. Thanks Jim for some really neat insights. Can’t believe that the time has gone so quickly. Speaking of getting comfortable with conflict (and releasing the creativity that comes with it), we’re breaking our cardinal rule of not going north of Naples after November 1st to attend Stu’s 75th birthday party. Wish you could be there. See you soon and be safe.

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