I Ate A Porcupine (Ikinyogote) – Umwagarwa’s take on the cultural openness of Rwandans

Published September 5, 2019

Thanks to my international career, I currently reside in Libreville, Gabon. One of the things that make Libreville a livable city is the diversity of its residents. The helpers in our homes are of different nationalities. The taxi drivers are of different nationalities. The shop keepers are of different nationalities. The people we meet in supermarkets, in restaurants, in some offices are also of different backgrounds. Gabonese people are very friendly and open to this diversity. Living in this country has given me an opportunity to mingle with people from different backgrounds, get to know different cultures, perspectives and viewpoints, and simply appreciate the beauty of diversity the way I had never done before.

Despite that exposure to different cultures, I had somehow kept the belief that as a Rwandan, there are those things I should appreciate from far, but which I would never dare do. One of them was: Eating bush meat.

There is a first time for everything.

Recently, a friend of mine said, “Happy, you’ve been in this country for over three years, but you have never eaten local.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I would like to invite you to a local restaurant where you can eat good rice, veggies and meat.”

“But, that’s what I eat every day at home and in the restaurants I sometimes go to.”

“No, my friend. The local restaurant I’m talking about is different. Have you ever eaten bush meat.”

“Bush meat? I don’t eat bush meat.”

“I also don’t,” She said. “But, we are in Gabon now. Why can’t we give it a try? Don’t worry, you won’t have to eat it. They also serve good cassava leaves, fish and lamb.”

“Alright. Let’s go. I’m tempted to discover local restaurants in this city.”

As we drove to that restaurant, my never-idle brain started wondering. How did Rwandans discover that beef, goat meat, pork, chicken etc., are edible? Was it not because somebody tested, tasted and trusted those kinds of meat?

I grew up in Kigali at an area known as Nyamirambo, and more precisely in the neighborhood nicknamed today as 40 (Mirongo ine). Many of our neighbors were not Rwandan. Some were Congolese, others were Tanzanian. Among the Rwandan neighbors also, due to religion influences, their lifestyles were a diversity.

Nyamirambo – 40 in the night.

My Rwandan parents never ate the Lake Tanganyika Sardine (indagara). My mother used to call them ‘little mites with open eyes’ (udusimba duto dukanuye amaso). However, she had no option but to buy indagara for us, because we loved those little fish. In fact, as educated parents, they knew indagara were very nutritious and could be ideal substitutes to meat, which cost a few hundreds of Rwandan francs that could not be afforded every day.

It’s not only the Lake Tanganyika Sardine that our parents did not eat but had to buy for us. Around December of every year, edible grasshoppers (isenene) used to invade our homes and our streets. Some mothers at 40 sold them in kilos, others prepared them and sold them ready. My mother, despite the fact that she wished we never ate grasshoppers, she bought them for us. We knew we were not allowed to go to the streets to catch them like other kids in our neighborhood did.

Even if the Lake Tanganyika Sardine or the edible grasshoppers were regarded by my parents as food that they wished we did not eat, I found them tasty and thanked Mama and Papa for having allowed us to eat what some Rwandans in other parts of the country could never dare eat.

Dried Lake Tanganyika Sardine and Edible grasshoppers

Paradoxically, there are other kinds of food that we ate that many other typical Rwandan families could never dare serve for dinner. My father was one of those Africans who were regarded as Europeanized by their education, their careers, the languages they spoke, the clothes they wore, etc. In good Kinyarwanda, he was umusirimu, which can be translated as ‘a civilized person’. I want to think that despite his Rwandanness, whatever was regarded as normal by the Europeans, at least those he had met, he approved without any reluctancy. I recall the few family dinners that included some food Papa used to buy from the few delicatessens that were in the Kigali of the 80s and the early 90s. We ate seafood. We ate buffalo meat. We also ate lamb meat; which, for some reasons, was normally reserved for Abatwa community.

When I found myself in Europe, I discovered different kinds of seafood that I had never tasted before. Although there are some that I’m still reluctant to taste today, I can generally say I like seafood. Apart from seafood, I might have tasted other kinds of meat I don’t know. I recall a day I was invited by a friend to a Greek restaurant where I was served a platter of many kinds of meat, some of which I didn’t know how they were called.

Why was Papa more open to the European cuisine than he was to the African cuisine outside Rwanda? Why did I take a fork and a knife and ate from that Greek platter before asking the chef, or anybody else in the restaurant, to explain each kind of meat I was about to eat? Does it have something to do with the effects of colonization? Does it mean we sometimes use European culture as a benchmark to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not?

Back to the story of how I ate a porcupine in Libreville.

After a few minutes ride during which I was recalling all those experiences with food as a child in Nyamirambo and as a young adult in Europe, when we arrived at the restaurant, I asked the waiter what was on the menu. To my friend’s surprise, I ordered a porcupine. I said to myself, “If Gabonese people eat it, why not me?” Oh my! How delicious that meat was. I will definitely one day go back to either the same restaurant or another and order porcupine again or try a crocodile, a gazelle or an antelope.

After my porcupine meat was served, I took a photo and sent it to my Rwandan hubby. What he told me, I can’t write it here. I sent the same photo to my siblings and informed them that I had eaten a porcupine. One of my brothers said, “Tomorrow, you will tell us that you’ve eaten a lion or a tiger.” My hubby, my siblings and all other Rwandans I told that I ate a porcupine did not only tell me that I was eating what should never be eaten for whatever reasons, but had to remind me that as a Rwandan, I shouldn’t behave like non-Rwandans to the extent of eating the food they eat. To them, it was as if I was losing my Rwandanness.

Porcupine (ikinyogote) meat served at one of the Libreville local restaurants

That wasn’t the first time that my Rwandanness was questioned simply because I had done what the majority of Rwandans wouldn’t do. I can’t count how many times I have expressed some of my opinions, and somebody told me I should remember I’m Rwandan, as if my nationality should always serve as a box that limits my openness to the diversity that surrounds me? Whenever I ask questions I’m told that each society has a culture it has to stick to. However, nobody has ever explained to me when and how what we consider to be part of our culture was accepted. Did Rwandans always keep cattle and drank milk? Did they always ate goat meat, especially the famous goat brochettes that are not found in many other countries? When and how did they adopt imishanana and imikenyero as their traditional attire?

The purpose of this article was not to discuss food or food culture. I simply wanted to use the story as a tool to evaluate the cultural openness of Rwandans.

Many people think the Rwandan society is culturally homogenous. We like to say we have the same culture, same religion and same language. That’s not totally false. Before the colonization, Rwanda was a nation with one leadership, one people, one language and one territory. Compared to citizens of other countries, which were formed by putting together different kingdoms, culturally Rwandans seem to share a lot with each other.

However, no society in this world is that culturally homogeneous. We are all unique and different as individuals and as communities. Rwanda is not an exception. The day we shall start thinking of our society as heterogeneous, we shall overcome many of the challenges we face today. It’s only then that we shall start leveraging on our differences to develop our country, instead of fighting each other in an attempt to keep the homogeneity that has never been there.

Whenever we talk of differences, some people hear ethnicities, and taking into account the tragic history of Rwanda, we all know what nightmares that could resuscitate. We forget that differences do not always have to be explained by the so-called ethnicities, even though the inventors of the ethnicities may have based on some of those differences to group some people.

Think about our dances! Growing up, at school we used to dance ‘Ikinimba’, but for political reasons, my mother never allowed us to dance ‘ikinimba’ at home because she associated that dance to the region where President Habyarimana was from. In fact, when I was six, my sister and I had to join a dancing troupe that was known as ‘Abatangampundu’, which focused on “imishayayo” and “imishagiriro.” My aunties from the South of Rwanda were more used to another different kind of dance, “Isamaza”. In fact, in Rwanda, there are many dances, and each of these is either associated to a region; e.g. Ikinimba from the North, or to a community, e.g. Ikinyemera of Abagogwe or Intwatwa of Abatwa.

The second example is about our food practices and taboos. I saw for the first time an adult adding sugar in milk after 1994 when I was 15. To make it worse, the man drank the milk while standing up. It was a shock to me. In our home we knew we needed to sit down to drink milk and we could never think about adding sugar to it.

More on the food taboos: I will never forget the first time I went to a funeral of a Rwandan, and on the day of the burial, people gathered to eat food. Growing up, I knew that no food was served before and on the day of the burial. Even the kids had to be taken in a closed room to be fed.

Some of our differences are due to the fact that each of us is unique, and that each region and neighborhood of Rwanda is different. A girl from Nyamirambo, like me, may behave differently from the girl from Umutara; Eastern Province.

Some other differences are due to the fact that our history has been characterized by episodes of exodus from Rwanda to other countries, and when we return to Rwanda, we come with some other practices and habits that were not known to other Rwandans.

Education also makes people better critical thinkers. Today, the young Rwandans know how to ask, “Why not?” when they are told they shouldn’t do this or that.

As the world becomes a global village, we no longer need to travel abroad to be influenced by other cultures. We see it all on television, on social media, and on other internet sites.

Instead of ignoring these differences or fight them to force everybody to talk, walk and do like the other person, we, Rwandans, should rather acknowledge these differences and leverage on them to develop our country.

Please allow me to conclude by listing just a few of the areas in which acknowledging our differences can be beneficial to our country:

  • Today, Rwanda wants to develop and promote its tourism, and I commend this decision. Whether we like it or not, if we indeed aim for sustainable development, our tourism has to be developed. However, we should understand that tourists do not come to see only; they also come to experience. We should make sure they find in Rwanda both what they have never experienced before, as well as what they are accustomed to. We should make sure there is a lot to experience that they cannot cover in just one holiday, and make them want to come back to explore even more of our diversity.
A Logo that is used to promote Rwanda’s tourism
  • Rwanda aims at developing its service industry, and once again, we have no other choice. All we have is our human resources, and they cannot fully contribute if we don’t give the space they need to imagine, dream and create. They need to be allowed to fly their wings without any watchdogs trying to tell them what’s allowed in Rwanda and what’s not. They need to free their imagination out of the cultural box they are always called to fit in. In their inventions and creations, they need to see the big picture and target a market beyond Rwanda. This shall never be achieved when we keep on throwing stones (words) to our creatives whenever they try to come up with some novel ideas. Go! Go! Paccy with your Amakoma! Go for it Noeline Isimbi with your pictures! Go for it Kizito Imihigo with your reconciliation songs! #Freedom is the keyword.
  • Rwandans should stop using European culture as the only benchmark for appreciating our own cultural diversity. We should not fail to appreciate the unique culture of Twas (Abatwa). We should stop regarding them as uncivilized simply because they like living in forests, surviving on hunting and pottery. I can only imagine if we allowed Abatwa to be themselves and simply make sure they have access to water, electricity, hospitals and schools. What talents they do have! Their dances! Their singing! The pottery! The bush meat! The language with an interesting accent! How I wished we look at their uniqueness as wealth, and not as a bad thing. Do we know how many tourists visit Tanzania and Kenya because of the Masai community?
Abatwa Beauty and Talents
  • Imagine if we had leveraged on the languages many Rwandans had learnt from the countries they lived in for years. Some of us would have learnt French. Some of us would have learnt English. Some of us would have learnt Swahili. Some of us would have learnt Lingala. Some of us would have learnt Luganda. Kigali as small as it is, it could have been the natural metropolitan city of East Africa. What did we do? Instead of aiming for harmony, we chose uniformity, and today, many of us do neither master Kinyarwanda nor any of the above-mentioned languages.
  • Socially, cultural openness can lead to tolerance and peace among citizens. It can lead to synergy when different Rwandans are called to work together for a project or programme aiming at developing our country. The unique contributions of each of us would easily be welcomed by the other Rwandans. Expression of our unique ideas would be easier.  
  • Politically, if Rwandans had embraced cultural openness, our politics would have been more about what the politicians are doing or propose to do for the country, instead of being about who they are, how they talk, what they believe in, or how they behave. Nobody would base on the fact that he looks, talks or walks like the majority to pretend to be a political leader of Rwandans. Nobody would leverage on our differences to turn us against each other.
  • If Rwandans had embraced cultural openness, we would have learnt to see our differences as the wealth we should protect. Each of us would not feel ashamed to speak his/her dialect or Kinyarwanda with an accent depending on where he/she is from. None of us would have to talk and walk like the other with an aim to be accepted by the members of other group. Hence, politicians would have learnt to know our different needs and wants, and aim to satisfy those.
  • If Rwandans had embraced cultural openness, we would understand people can see things differently, have different opinions, and express those opinions in different ways. Nobody would be verbally or physically abused for having expressed his/her opinions.

I guess I have written more than two other posts on the topic of diversity. Today, I aimed at focusing on cultural diversity, but if you look at my conclusions, you will understand that we need to embrace diversity in all domains.

Thanks for reading

My name is Umwagarwa

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Have you ordered a copy of HeartsAmongOurselves, my new novel set in in the post genocide Rwanda? I have posted below its trailer.

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Those who are in Rwanda, I am pleased to inform you that the novel is now on Kigali bookshelves. Please get your copy from Librairie Caritas, in town (Tel. +250(0)788300787), and Arise Bookshop, on Kimironko road (Tel. +250(0)788354020)

Below is the trailer of Hearts Among Ourselves.