If you live in a Rwanda as a foreigner, you will inevitably be subject to the Rwandan stare (henceforth: “the stare”). This is not to be confused with the typical stare you receive as an obvious tourist in most countries. No, no, dear reader. Much like the Indian stare, the stare will leave you feeling like your observer is attempting to penetrate your very soul. It can be an odd and unsettling experience, but it’s one that I’ve become quite used to. I’ve added it to the list of things that will naturally happen to a foreigner who lives in Rwanda. I don’t find it insulting because I’ve even seen Rwandans do it to each other as well.
As one Rwandan associate put it, when she sees people she doesn’t know, she unconsciously starts staring, pondering who they are, who their parents are, why they’re here, and what they do. “And yes, sometimes there’s judgment,” she added, with a laugh. She further explained that when she’s outside of Rwanda, she has to force herself to suspend the habit of staring, because she knows that it’s considered impolite in other countries. As we continued joking about our experiences with the stare, we realized that most women in the conversation (both Rwandans and foreigners) had experience the stare in a different way from the men. One Rwandan man commented that Rwandans do tend look up and down at anyone they don’t recognize. Apparently the woman-on-woman staring goes to a whole new level, which one friend coined “the down-up stare.” The down-up stare is the one that is probably laced with judgment. It starts with an assessment of the shoes (Girl why did you wear those shoes out of the house?), goes up to the attire (But your shoes don’t really match your outfit.) and ends with the regular stare in the face. (Who are you and why are you here…?) It is important to note here that Rwandans are fond of dressing smart (i.e. very well-dressed) and the foreigner rolling up to the coffee shop in her sweatpants, will immediately be spotted as an outsider. I laughed at this synopsis, because women all across the world do this, don’t we? We see a woman we don’t know and we immediately begin to size her up. The difference seems to be that we are intentionally discreet about it, while Rwandans do not care to spare your feelings while gazing into your soul. So if you’re ever in Rwanda, and find yourself the object of an intense gaze, just relish it as part of the experience. One foreigner suggested that the way to overcome the stare is to actually stare back more aggressively. I think if I tried that I would just end up laughing at myself. But if any of you dear readers would like to try that tactic, let me know how it works out for you.
I'm a Jamaican woman living in Rwanda. I believe we should all get free or die trying. I find freedom in words.